The Horror Film Project
M. Keith Booker
POSTMODERNISM: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
The term “postmodernism” has become a central part of the jargon of literary and cultural criticism, though understandings of the phenomenon of postmodernism have varied widely among professional scholars and critics. The term has also gained wide currency in more popular discourse, as when the cable channel MTV ran a late-night program in the late 1980s and early 1990s called PostModern MTV that featured music videos by “alternative” artists such as The Cure and Depeche Mode. But exactly what was meant by “postmodern” in this MTV series was never quite clear, other than the fact that it seemed to indicate something outside the pop music mainstream.
Academic critics have also had considerable disagreement about the nature of postmodernism, largely because the phenomenon is still evolving, giving us little historical distance from which to view it. It is also the case that most observers have read postmodernism against modernism, but our understanding of modernism is still evolving as well. Thus, the Egyptian American critic Ihab Hassan, one of the first important critics to call attention to postmodernism as a literary phenomenon in the 1960s, cast modernism in a conservative, authoritarian light as opposed to the subversive energies he associated with the new postmodernist literature. When Hassan attempts to characterize postmodernism in his landmark essay “POSTmodernISM,” he does so largely by seeing postmodernism as an extension of modernism, but with more democratic and revolutionary energies—in keeping with the 1960s context in which Hassan was working at the time. For Hassan, both modernism and postmodernism are informed by the following characteristics:
(2) technologism (including reactions to technology like Bergsonian time and dissociation of sensibility)
(3) dehumanization (essentially an end to the old realism, affecting the sense of the self—style takes over: let life and the masses fend for themselves)
(4) primitivism (use of archetypes and the return of Dionysus)
(6) antinomianism (iconoclasm, schism, excess, movement toward apocalypse)
In this essay, Hassan’s principal interest is in postmodernism, but he still discusses it in terms of these “rubrics” developed from modernism, concluding that a central difference between the two movements has to do with the questions of order and authority:
whereas Modernism created its own forms of Authority, precisely because the center no longer held, Postmodernism has tended toward Anarchy, in deeper complicity with things falling apart . . . the Authority of Modernism . . . rests on intense, elitist, self-generated orders in times of crisis, of which the Hemingway Code is perhaps the starkest exemplar, and Eliot’s Tradition or Yeats’ Mythology is a more devious kind. (29)
Subsequent critics of postmodernism have often moved in this same direction, pointing out the elitism of modernism and criticizing its lack of engagement with historical reality. Andreas Huyssen, for example, has criticized modernism as an elitist form designed to preserve a distinction between high and low art that is essentially class-based. For him, postmodernist literature bridges that gap, refusing to privilege what has traditionally been regarded as high culture over the more popular forms that have arisen in the twentieth century. On the other hand, according to Fredric Jameson, America’s most important Marxist critic at the end of the twentieth century and the most important theorist of postmodernism, such criticisms of modernism fail to place the movement in its proper historical perspective. For Jameson, it is not modernism, but postmodernism that is the ultimate artistic reflection of bourgeois ideology. Postmodernism is the kind of art that arises when the historical process of capitalist modernization is essentially complete; modernism, on the other hand, appears at a time when this process is still underway. Modernism, for Jameson, continues to reflect vestiges of older forms of social organization, deriving energy from “the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history” (Postmodernism 307). The sense of the new in modernism is so intense because the old still exists to provide contrasts; in the age of postmodernism, everything is new, so that, in a sense, nothing is, the very category of the new having lost any real meaning. Modernism, according to Jameson, is driven by the “myth of producing a radically new Utopian space capable of transforming the world itself (Postmodernism 104), while postmodernism simply accepts the world as it is and contains virtually no utopian energies whatsoever. Moreover, Jameson argues that the various forms of modernism, however variable, share an unmitigated hostility toward the capitalist market, while the various forms of postmodernism, which can be equally variable, share an affirmation of that market (Postmodernism 304–05). Even modernism’s notorious subjectivism, for Jameson, has a strong utopian component, suggesting the possibility of an impending transformation of the self from the older bourgeois model. Postmodernism, in short, announces the ultimate triumph of capitalist modernization, while modernism functions as a last-ditch attempt at resistance against the growing hegemony of capitalism and of bourgeois ideology, driven by the belief that there are alternatives, thanks to the surviving energies of the Second International (Postmodernism 313).
Many accounts of modern literary history are built upon a narrative of movement from the dominance of realism in the nineteenth century, through the challenges to realism offered by modernism, to the eventual emergence of postmodernism. However, as Jameson’s discussions of literary history emphasize, modernism differs from both realism and postmodernism because it was never a dominant form during its initial run; it was instead a marginal form opposed to a still dominant realism. From this point of view, postmodernism can be seen as what modernism is when it becomes dominant, losing its oppositional energies and becoming thoroughly conscripted as what Jameson calls “the logic of late capitalism.”
One thing that is clear is that many observers, in the 1960s and 1970s, noted that a new form of cultural production seemed to be emerging. Many also noted that the formal characteristics of this new cultural form—its self-conscious experimentalism, its violations of the conventions of realism—resembled those of modernism. Thus, this new phenomenon came to be called “postmodernism,” indicating both its similarities to modernism and the fact that it seemed aware of its belatedness—as opposed to the modernist sense of seeking to do something new. In any case, postmodernism occurred under very different historical circumstances than did modernism and seemed to take a different—less serious, more playful—attitude toward its own project.
Actually, the phenomenon of postmodernism in its contemporary sense was first noticed (and named) in the 1950s in relation to architecture, where the turn to a new style of production was immediately obvious. Modernist architecture—the so-called “international style”—was marked by simplicity and practicality, by the kinds of stark, rectangular forms to be found in the conventional skyscrapers that sprang up around the world in the early and middle part of the twentieth century and in phenomena such as the “Bauhaus” architecture in Germany and the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) in America. However, while Wright’s designs employed many of the efficient, economical aspects of modernist architecture, his insistence on developing designs that were in harmony with the natural environment and with the natural inclinations of human beings acknowledged some of the dehumanizing limitations of modernist architecture. These limitations, by the 1950s, led to the development of new forms of architecture that were less rigidly functional and more ornamental, combining aspects of different architectural styles from different historical periods.
This new, self-consciously eclectic form of architecture came to be recognized as a genuine departure, especially as theorized by architect Robert Venturi, who countered the telling dictum of the important modernist architect Mies van der Rohe (1866–1969) that “less is more” with his own declaration that “less is a bore.” Venturi’s principal theorization of this new form of architecture is contained in his influential 1972 book (co-authored with his wife Denise Scott Brown and with Steven Izenour) Leaving Las Vegas.
Venturi and his associates correctly surmised that something was happening here in contemporary architecture though what it was wasn’t exactly clear. It was Charles Jencks, with Language of Post-modern Architecture (1977) who for the first time clearly articulated these new developments within the context of what he called postmodernism. Though Jencks was at first hesitant to apply the term “postmodernism” in a positive sense (preferring terms such as “radical eclecticism”), he soon adopted postmodernism as a positive designation, revising his book a year later to include a vision of the postmodern as a new kind of “double-coding,” in which architecture could employ both modern and historical aspects in a single structure.
Meanwhile, by the time the work of architects such as Venturi and Jencks was published, other observers were beginning to detect similar developments outside of architecture. The recognition of postmodernism as a new literary phenomenon was spearheaded by the Egyptian-born American critic Ihab Hassan (1925–2015), who, in a series of critical works, attempted to describe the new phenomenon. Clearly influenced by the carnivalesque, anti-authoritarian energies of the oppositional political movements of the 1960s, Hassan saw postmodernism as a radical, subversive tendency through which literature could challenge both the cultural and the political status quo. As noted above, he saw modernism and postmodernism as employing many of the same aesthetic strategies, but for vastly different purposes, with postmodernism becoming a sort of ultra-modernism that was more daring than modernism and that overcame the conservative limitations of mainstream modernism. Modernism ultimately emerges in the view of Hassan (and many others) as a conservative, elitist movement, while postmodernism emerges as a brash challenge to the very values that modernism supports. In works such as the essay “POSTmodernISM” (1971) and the volumes The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971), The Right Promethean Fire: Imagination, Science, and Cultural Change (1980), and The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987), Hassan outlined his influential theory of the subversive nature of postmodernist literature. However, by the end of the 1980s, his enthusiasm for the revolutionary possibilities of the movement seemed to have waned.
Meanwhile, in France, Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998), especially in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), gave the theorization of postmodernism a more philosophical turn. Envisioning postmodernism as a challenge to the rationalist principles of the Enlightenment, Lyotard saw it as being particularly informed by a strong skepticism toward grand “totalizing metanarratives,” which he explicitly associated with authoritarian structures of power. As opposed to this totalizing tendency, Lyotard (here and elsewhere in his work) celebrated the tendency toward fragmentation in postmodernist art and literature as an anti-authoritarian gesture.
The critical literature on postmodernism is vast and diverse. Much of it, like Lyotard, envisions postmodernism as a radical new cultural challenge to authority, though few have been able to articulate exactly what this new art really does to change the social and political status quo. Indeed, Perry Anderson convincing argues in his careful examination of the origins of the historical concept of postmodernity that the work of theorists such as Hassan, Lyotard, and Jencks (and even the ostensible leftist Jürgen Habermas), while ostensibly viewing postmodernism as emancipatory, is thoroughly underwritten (and undermined) by a thinly-disguised, Cold War–informed polemic against Marxism and socialism. Indeed, the grand metanarratives decried by Lyotard and other postmodern champions of fragmentation are, for Anderson, simply coded stand-ins for the Marxist model of history. Thus, despite their seeming diversity (and its overt celebration of diversity) Anderson sees in most earlier theorizations of postmodernism and postmodernity a strange ideological consistency in their aversion to the central principles of classical Marxism:
The idea of the postmodern, as it took hold in this conjuncture, was in one way or another an appanage of the Right. Hassan, lauding play and indeterminacy as hallmarks of the postmodern, made no secret of his aversion to the sensibility that was their antithesis: the iron yoke of the Left. Jencks celebrated the passing of the modern as the liberation of consumer choice, a quietus to planning in a world where painters could trade as freely and globally as bankers. For Lyotard the very parameters of the new condition were set by the discrediting of socialism as the last grand narrative—ultimate version of an emancipation that no longer held meaning. Habermas, resisting allegiance to the postmodern, from a position still on the Left, nevertheless conceded the idea to the Right, construing it as a figure of neo-conservatism. Common to all was a subscription to the principles of what Lyotard—once the most radical—called liberal democracy, as the unsurpassable horizon of the time. There could be nothing but capitalism. The postmodern was a sentence on alternative illusions. (45–46).
In short, the liberation driven by postmodernism is merely the false freedom of the “free” market, as captured by alternative suggestion by Mark Fisher that a better term for postmodernism might be “capitalist realism,” underwritten by the notion of the famous Thatcherite slogan that “there is no alternative” to capitalism.
Anderson cites with approval the theorization of postmodernism by Jameson, which sees postmodernism not as a radical, subversive gesture, but just the opposite. For Jameson, postmodernism is the direct expression of the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” It is the artistic form that arises when capitalist modernization nears completion and when commodification has engulfed virtually everything, including art and culture. Jameson’s vision of postmodernism, developed throughout the 1980s, is summed up in his 1991 book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, where he outlines what he sees as the important formal characteristics of postmodernist art and (more importantly) suggests the ways in which those characteristics relate to larger trends in the globalized world of late capitalism. Jameson’s book still stands as the single most important theoretical analysis of postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon.
For Jameson, the most important compositional strategy of postmodernist art and literature is pastiche, by which he means the borrowing of styles and motifs from the art and literature of the past. These borrowings, however, are carried out without any attempt to engage the original source in critical dialogue. Moreover, they ignore the fact that these originals were produced in a different historical context, so that the strategies used within them might mean something completely different than what they mean in the contemporary world. Styles and motifs borrowed from different cultures and (particularly, as emphasized by Jameson) from different time periods can be freely intermixed within the same postmodernist work, which tends to give postmodernist works a markedly ahistorical quality, with little or no sense of the historical process. Indeed, this loss of historical sense is a crucial characteristic of postmodernist literature for Jameson. It encompasses not just an inability to envision the past as a different time that led to the present by specific historical processes, but also an inability to imagine historical processes that lead to a future that is fundamentally different from the present. In short, postmodernist art is particularly lacking in the kind of utopian energies through which art, in the past, has helped to inspire social and political change.
Jameson also emphasizes that postmodernist artists employ this technique of pastiche because they are incapable of developing and maintaining the kind of distinct, individual styles that marked the work of the great modernist artists. Indeed, as noted in Chapter 2 of this volume, Jameson is consistently positive in his figuration of modernism as a sort of last wave of artistic resistance to the growing hegemony of capitalism in the modern world. Postmodernism, then, is the art that appears after this resistance has collapsed, leaving capitalism free to advance without opposition from this art, which, among other things, leads to a radical fragmentation of experience—both because of the tendency of capitalism to compartmentalize various phenomena for more efficient management and because the emphasis on innovation and expansion in capitalism lends an ephemeral quality to all aspects of existence. Importantly, Jameson relates the lack of distinct individual styles among postmodernist artists to the fact that they themselves lack the kind of stable, continuous identity that is needed to anchor such a style.
The psychic fragmentation that Jameson sees as central to the lives of individuals under late capitalism is also directly related to the formal fragmentation that he sees as crucial to postmodernism art. In postmodernist literature, in particular, narratives, characters, and even language itself tend to be fragmented and unstable, in dramatic opposition to the stable, autonomous characters and linear, rational narratives that are typical of realist literature. Importantly, however, while modernist literature is also often formally fragmented, this fragmentation is enlisted in a battle against the ideology of realism, which is essentially the same as the ideology of capitalism in its classic stage. In the postmodern era, however, the ideology of capitalism has become powerful and versatile enough to encompass both realism and anti-realism, leaving literature no position from which to mount a subversive assault on capitalism unless it arises from a cultural position that is distinctly outside the capitalist norm. By this view, much postcolonial literature would qualify as a sort of pocket of resistance to the global spread of capitalism, as might marginalized Western literatures such as gay or lesbian literature. But most Western literature and culture would have little chance to strike truly telling blows against capitalism. I will consider in this volume, however, the possibility that horror film, as a somewhat marginalized cultural form, might be able to function in the manner of the localized pockets of resistance identified by Jameson, especially when it is created by directors whose own social and political positions are outside the mainstream.
THE POSTMODERN HORROR FILM: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SUBGENRE
Any number of critics and theorists have associated the contemporary horror film (horror films released since, roughly, the 1960s or 1970s) with the phenomenon of postmodernism, though the details and implications of this association have been described in widely varying, even contradictory, terms. Concentrating on the 1980s, for example, Kim Newman sees contemporary horror as informed by a turn toward campy teen comedy in a bid to produce pure entertainment, thus losing the ability of earlier horror films to address in a productive way the fears and anxieties of their day (288–293). Indeed, for him, some of the most interesting postmodern horror occurs in films such as those by the Coen Brothers that are not horror films proper, but simply borrow motifs from horror film. Producing an almost diametrically opposed vision of the postmodern horror film, Tania Modleski, though finding little of political value in contemporary horror for her own particular feminist perspective, does see the postmodern horror film as having a political charge—resulting precisely from its refusal to deliver mere entertainment, disrupting expected narrative codes and challenging viewers to re-examine their ideas and beliefs. Modleski finds the postmodern in these films’ propensity for open-ended narratives, minimal plot developments, and the unappealing characters that defy audience identification.
I would argue that Newman and Modleski are both right and both wrong. Clearly, postmodern horror does deliver entertainment and pleasure, as Newman notes. Just as clearly, postmodern horror is often disturbing—and in ways that have as much to do with breaking the rules of conventional Hollywood narrative as with the dark content. The contradiction, I think, comes from the fact that Newman and Modleski both seem to regard the comforts of entertainment and pleasure as residing in polar opposition to the estrangement produced by challenging and disturbing texts, an opposition that postmodern horror film clearly demonstrates to be a false one. Indeed, if postmodern art in general tends to dissolve boundaries and oppositions, the one between entertainment and estrangement might ultimately be one of the most fundamental of the oppositions that postmodernism undermines. As a result, one might regard the postmodern horror film as a quintessential postmodern form.
This observation might, at first, seem a surprising one. Postmodern art is typically informed by a dissolution of boundaries, including the boundaries of genre, so that a given work of postmodern art can often participate in several genres at once. How, then, would genre films such as horror films epitomize the postmodern? The answer, I think, is twofold. First, horror films, especially from the 1980s forward, have not necessarily respected genre boundaries. They have, in fact, often drawn upon elements from other genres, including the Western, the crime thriller, and science fiction. In addition, while horror films do tend, more than most other films, to be highly conscious of their genre, its traditions, and its conventions, they often display this self-consciousness in a mode that can only be described as postmodern. Not only are horror films often constructed as pastiches of earlier films, but they often relate to these films in the mode described by Jameson as postmodern nostalgia and which, for him, is epitomized by the self-conscious borrowing from the conventions of film noir that mark neo-noir films such as Chinatown (1974). I would argue, however, that (at least by the 1980s), horror in general is at least as good an example of this effect, with most major horror films from that decade forward being intensely aware of their dialogue with the horror films that came before them.
Per Jameson’s reading, postmodernism has been a dominant force in American culture since roughly the 1970s. As a result, all horror film (and, indeed, all films) produced since that time are at least in some sense postmodern. My interest in this volume, however, is in films that overtly and self-consciously employ themes and techniques that can be identified as postmodern. I begin with an overview of a number of films that fall into this category, then proceed (as in the other volumes of this project) with a detailed critical discussion of six of the most important overtly postmodern horror films. It should be noted, however, that a number of the films included in other volumes of this project could have been included in this project, because (again) essentially all horror films produced from the 1970s forward are postmodern in one way or another.
Hitchcock and the Postmodern Slasher Film
In an influential essay, Linda Williams argues that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) can be regarded as the beginning point of postmodernism in film. No single film can literally be regarded as the “beginning” of such a large phenomenon, but Psycho is certainly an important marker of the rise of postmodernism. It is a film, for example, that was overtly marketed as unprecedented, but that in fact relies upon (and plays with) audience expectations (derived from their previous experience watching other films) in a very postmodern way, mercilessly leading audiences in one direction before veering off in another. Given that Psycho is also widely regarded as the founding work in the subgenre of slasher horror, then perhaps it should come as no surprise that slasher films have been at the forefront of postmodernism in horror. Psycho is discussed in detail in the volume of the Horror Film Project devoted to slasher films. For now, I would just like to note that one of the reasons why Psycho is such a crucial text in the development of the postmodern horror film has to do with the very postmodern way in which so many films that came after it consciously borrowed from it, in a mode of postmodern pastiche. Even aside from its own series of sequels, Psycho is clearly one of the most influential films in history, from the pastiches of it in the early work of Brian De Palma to the virtual shot-by-shot replication of it in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake. The influence of Psycho has been particularly strong in the slasher-film subgenre, to the extent that pastiches of Psycho constitute an important postmodern trend within that subgenre as a whole.
Of particular note here is the work of De Palma, many of whose early films were conscious pastiches of Hitchcock. As I have noted elsewhere,
The single characteristic of De Palma’s filmmaking that is best known and most commented upon by critics is his pastiche of Hitchcock in films such as Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1992), all of which function fairly well as thrillers in their own right, but none of which can be properly understood without understanding the great extent to which they draw their thematic material (and even specific camera shots) from classic Hitchcock films, especially Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954),and Psycho. (Postmodern Hollywood 124–25)
Indeed, De Palma’s filmic dialogue with Hitchcock represents a paradigmatic example of pastiche in postmodern film, though it should also be noted that De Palma films such as Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978) draw more upon the horror-film genre in general than upon Hitchcock in particular. In addition, the early De Palma has often been seen as a paradigm of the postmodern in general, as when John Belton calls him the “most ‘postmodern’” of the filmmakers of the film-school generation (307) or when Jameson calls his films the “American equivalents” of French postmodernist films such as Jean-Jacques Beneix’s Diva (Signatures 55). In any case, De Palma’s recycling of images and motifs from Hitchcock demonstrates, perhaps more than any other single phenomenon, the way in which the object of representation in the artifacts of postmodern culture is often not reality, but other cultural artifacts.
De Palma’s overt pastiche of Hitchcock began with Sisters (1973), which draws particularly directly upon Psycho, with dashes of Rear Window and Rope also thrown in. Sisters is a violent slasher film whose slasher has a split personality: she is both herself and her sister, just as Norman Bates is both himself and his mother. In both cases, the fragmentation of the postmodern subject noted by Jameson is literalized in a particularly direct way. Sisters also includes some fascinating explorations of themes related to gender, so much so that Robin Wood has called this the “definitive feminist horror film” and argued that it is “among the most complete and rigorous analyses of the oppression of women under patriarchal culture in the whole of patriarchal cinema” (68).
In Obsession, De Palma continues his early pastiche of Hitchcock. For one thing, this film (like Sisters) includes a score by Bernard Herrmann, who had scored several of Hitchcock’s films, including Psycho. This score helps to create a very Hitchcockian atmosphere, as does the camerawork, which mirrors the famously intrusive camerawork of Vertigo in obvious ways that are clearly meant to call attention to themselves. In addition, the plot and themes of Obsession draw quite directly upon Vertigo, with its focus on the simulated restoration of a lost love. And, of course, the obsession of the title leads to some dire results, which is why Obsession can be considered a horror film, though in this case the film suddenly supplies a happy ending, complete with a final Hitchcockian stylistic flourish.
Of De Palma’s “Hitchcock” films, Dressed to Kill (1980) probably draws upon Psycho the most directly and most extensively. Here, the film begins by showing us scenes from the life of frustrated housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), establishing an identification between the audience and this character much like the one engineered by Hitchcock in introducing us to Marion Crane in the opening segments of Psycho. Then, like Marion, Kate is shockingly and brutally murdered only a third of the way into the film—in a pastiche so overt that she is even slashed to death by a male psycho dressed as a woman. In the case of Dressed to Kill, however,the killer is Kate’s psychiatrist, whose problematic sexual identity causes his/her feminine side murderously to emerge whenever the masculine side feels sexually attracted to a woman. Once again, then, we have the theme of split personality/psychic fragmentation, as in Psycho. On the other hand, Dressed to Kill also deviates from and goes beyond Psycho in some interesting ways. Unlike Van Sant in his literal, but flat, remake, De Palma seems to know that, to achieve an emotional impact in the postmodern era, he needs to include much more graphic representations of sex and violence than Hitchcock had been able to do back in the Code days of 1960.
Of course, the ultimate example of a film constructed as a pastiche of Psycho is Van Sant’s reshooting of Psycho with exactly the same script, virtually the same camera setups and mise-en-scène, and the same musical score. The only major deviations include the decision to shoot the new Psycho in color and the necessity of using a different cast of actors, with Vince Vaughan and Anne Heche replacing Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh in the key roles of Norman Bates and Marion Crane. The results are mixed, to say the least, but Van Sant’s film nevertheless represents a fascinating experiment. And “experiment” is the right word. Van Sant’s film has the flavor of a laboratory experiment and is emotionally quite flat, while Hitchcock’s was widely regarded as one of the most shocking and emotionally powerful films ever to have appeared in mainstream American cinema. No doubt part of this difference is simply due to the audience awareness that Van Sant was reproducing Hitchcock, making his Psycho a sort of postmodern simulation of a film rather than a film proper and giving it an almost campy aspect. And one could, of course, argue that, even using Hitchcock’s script and camera placements, Van Sant simply lacks the master’s flair. Similarly, one could argue that, atmospherically, the original black-and-white presentation was more effective than the color one, or that the acting in the original (the power of Perkins’s performance, in particular, is by now legendary) was simply better and more evocative than the acting in the remake. But surely Van Sant’s film would have differed from Hitchcock’s even if he had shot in black-and-white, even if he could somehow have reproduced the original performances exactly: audiences would still have inevitably read his film in dialogue with Hitchcock’s, forcing a different reception than the original film received. Indeed, even if, somehow, Van Sant could have found audiences that were entirely unaware of Hitchcock’s original, it clearly means something different to make precisely this film in 1998 than it did in 1960. For one thing, audiences in 1998 had seen lots of slasher films, virtually all of them far gorier than Psycho. For another, they had seen lots of films that derived their material from earlier films, especially from the works of recognized masters such as Hitchcock.
As the 1980s proceeded, the self-conscious imitation of predecessors in slasher films became more and more prominent, perhaps most visibly in the evolution of the great slasher franchises of the decade, in which each subsequent film engages so directly in dialogue with its predecessors, with Psycho in some sense looming over them all (especially Halloween). That phenomenon is discussed in more detail in the volume on Slasher Films of the Horror Film Project. For now let me simply note that this sort of franchising was a clear step toward the conversion of films such as those in the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises to pure commodities, products that were manufactured and then marketed under brand names toward the primary goal of generating profits.There were, of course, exceptions to this trend. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), for example, is a distinctive slasher film that seems, at first glance to have little in common with the mainstream slasher franchises of the previous decade. Those franchises featured larger-than-life killers that seemed supernatural in their dedication to murder, while Henry is a much more realistic film based loosely on the crimes of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, or at least on the crimes he claimed to have committed (though most of his confessions turned out to be false). Michael Rooker stars as the titular Henry in a film that is widely regarded as a low-budget masterpiece. Henry is definitely chilling, though actually not as a violent as a brief description might make it appear. For one thing, most of Henry’s victims are shown after they are already dead, rather than while he is actually killing them. But that’s bad enough, especially given that such crimes really do occur and there really are people out there who kill arbitrarily and seemingly on a whim. Of course, the very arbitrariness of Henry’s killings means that the film has no real plot, but just wanders episodically from one killing to another. We do get some sympathetic backstory—which tends to make Henry (despite the fact that Rooker is really good at playing unlikeable) seem almost as much a victim as a villain. For example, the film includes the story of his childhood abuse at the hands of his mother, which was presumably crucial to his evolution into murder, but somehow he comes off through the film as just your regular average serial killer, trying to get by as best he can in a taxing profession. In particular, his crony Otis (Tom Towles) is a lot more despicable than is Henry, and Henry basically becomes a hero when he kills Otis to save Otis’s sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) from being raped and murdered by her own brother. After all, Henry is rather fond of Becky, with whom he has begun a relationship. Then again, he then apparently kills Becky himself, just for the heck of it, so there is a final reminder that Henry is not your normal knight in shining armor.
Made in 1986, but not released until 1990 due to issues over its MPAA rating and to concerns over whether such a mixed-mode film could find a market, Henry displays a hybridity that still marks it as postmodern, however different it might be from the typical slasher film of the era. Indeed, Isabel Pinedo treats Henry as one of the key texts in her discussion of postmodern horror films (97–105). Pinedo, incidentally, regards recent horror films in general (produced since about 1968) to be a fundamentally postmodern phenomenon, though almost all of her central examples come from slasher films—The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Thing (1982) are the main exceptions. Drawing especially on the work of Andrew Tudor, she argues that these films differ most obviously from classical horror films in their refusal of neat narrative closure (the defeat of the monster by the forces of human—generally male—normality and righteousness).
By the time of Wes Craven’s highly self-conscious New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), the original slasher-movie franchise cycle had pretty much run out of steam. Craven, however, was able to rejuvenate the subgenre and to make it even more postmodern—by producing films that were essentially hip postmodern pastiches of earlier slasher films. New Nightmare was the seventh film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, though it was only the second to be directed by Craven, who had originated the series. As the title suggests, however, this film is a distinct departure that moves the franchise in a new, more self-consciously postmodern direction. It also includes the most engaging performance by star Heather Langenkamp, an actress known almost exclusively for her performances in this franchise as Nancy Thompson, the main target of supernatural slasher Freddy Krueger. Here, though fiction and reality completely merge in a postmodern stew as Langenkamp plays herself, now threatened once again as Krueger decides to emerge from the world of film into the world of reality, beginning with deadly attacks on special effects artists from his own films, including Langenkamp’s husband, whom Freddy kills early on. He then haunts her young son and generally makes a major nuisance of himself, all in conjunction with the work that Craven is doing on the script for a new Elm Street film. Craven plays himself in the film, while Robert Englund plays both himself and Krueger. New Nightmare sometimes descends into silliness and often doesn’t really make sense, but it still easily the cleverest film in the Elm Street franchise. Eventually, fiction eventually gets completely entangled with reality, and Heather herself can’t tell if she’s Heather or Nancy, John Saxon can’t tell if he’s Saxon or Donald Thompson, and Englund and Freddy get completely mixed up.
Scream, discussed below in detail, is marked by a more general awareness (and the awareness of its characters) of slasher movie conventions, which creates considerable humor, though the film manages to function as a legitimate slasher film nevertheless. Perhaps the next logical step in the evolution of postmodern slasher films, Scream operates on the assumption that its viewers will be familiar with slasher-movie conventions. Most of the characters within the film are slasher-film fans as well, though the central female target of this film’s slashers, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), declares early on that she doesn’t watch “that shit,” because it’s so predictable.
Scream was a major critical and commercial success—so much so that, even as it grew out of a sense of the exhaustion of slasher-film franchises, it became the founding work of an entire franchise of its own (not to mention the source of one of the most popular Halloween masks of all time, the Ghostface mask of the film’s slasher figure. Scream 2 (1997) ratchets the self-consciousness up a notch even from Scream by beginning as characters attend a screening of the film Stab, which is based on the “real-world” events that occurred in Scream. With an audience full of individuals in Ghostface suits, it is an easy matter for one of them to begin a murder binge right in the midst of the theater. He then proceeds to commit other murders as well, focusing on people whose names echo the names of the victims in Scream, because (we will eventually learn) he is simply seeking attention, hoping eventually to be caught, then to become famous by presenting a Stab defense, arguing that he was driven to murder by the events depicted in the film. In short, the whole premise of this film is an ironic rejoinder to critics of the original Scream, who feared that it would trigger copycat murders in precisely this way. Poor Sidney Prescott (still played by Campbell), now away at college, is still the main target, but again survives and is again involved in killing not one, but two, spree killers, both the new Ghostface, and his “handler,” who turns out to be the mother of the killer from Scream, somewhat in the mode of the murderous Mrs. Voorhees in the original Friday the 13th. The media-fascinated Ghostface (aka “the freaky Tarantino film student”), meanwhile, is played by a young Timothy Olyphant, who is great fun to see in the role. Also hungry for media attention is Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), who had appeared briefly in the margins of Scream as the innocent man sent to prison for killing Sidney’s mother (played by Laurie Metcalf), based on Sidney’s testimony, which turned out to be inadvertently inaccurate. He’s now out, with the real killer revealed, and hoping to cash in on the experience with the help of the media. But perhaps the most notable presence in this impressive ensemble cast is Sarah Michelle Gellar, who here appears as sorority sister Casey “Cici” Cooper, killed off early on, having apparently not yet developed the deadly fighting skills that would soon haunt the vampires of Sunnydale.
Scream 3 (2000) was originally supposed to wrap up the Scream trilogy, bringing a conclusion to the series—until Scream 4 appeared in 2011, of course. Not quite as successful as the first two Scream films (critically or commercially), it was still a hit, and it’s still entertaining—and cranks up the turn toward postmodernism still another notch. This one revolves around the production of the film Stab 3, whose participants are now being killed off by a new Ghostface slasher. This one again has an unusually interesting cast for a slasher film. Neve Campbell, Live Schreiber, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette return from earlier Scream films, now joined by such luminaries as Patrick Dempsey, Patrick Warburton, Lance Henriksen, Jenny McCarthy, Kelly Rutherford, and Emily Mortimer. (Campbell, though, has a reduced role, because she had now become a star and was busy with other commitments.) Best of all, though, is Parker Posey as Jennifer Jolie, the actress who is playing Gale Weathers in Stab 3. Much of this film inadvertently degenerates into the kind of conventional slasher film that is lampooned in the first two, even as it never takes itself seriously, sometimes to the point of making this one seem like an episode of Scooby-Doo. Posey, though, is terrific, playing her role as total farce, consistently over-acting (as perhaps befits a character who is an actress playing a media celebrity), often with hilarious results. The scene in which she slugs Dewey and then is slugged in turn by Weathers, is a highlight, as is the whole interaction between Jolie and Weathers. Also good is Jamie Kennedy’s appearance on videotape as a posthumous Randy Meeks, warning the others that “You are not dealing with a sequel. You are dealing with the concluding chapter of a trilogy.” There are other fun moments as well, as when Jay and Silent Bob make a walkthrough cameo, or when Carrie Fisher appears as a failed actress who is always being mistaken for Carrie Fisher, but who didn’t get the role of Princess Leia because she wouldn’t sleep with George Lucas. Roger Corman even appears as a studio executive. In general, the level of blood and violence is cut back a bit in the interest of suspense, not always successfully. All in all, maybe not as good as the first two Scream films, but that’s a pretty high standard. Compared to other slasher films, this one is still unusually good. In the end, Roman Bridger (Scott Foley), the director of Stab 3, is revealed to be Sidney’s long-lost half-brother, the abandoned (and thus bitter) product of their mother’s former days as a slutty minor actress in the horror films produced by Henriksen’s John Milton. Bridger is also revealed to have been the force orchestrating (“I’m a director. I direct.”) the killings of the earlier films. The tendency of the events of earlier films to unfold according to cinematic conventions is thus explained. His death, meanwhile, would seem to be the end of the Scream cycle. But slasher franchises have a way of going on despite everything.
Scream 4 (2012), the final feature film directed by Craven before his death, is a sort of reboot of the franchise, twelve years after the completion of the trilogy. Dewey and Gale and Sidney all return, but now they’re a decade older, while there’s a whole new generation of high-schoolers to be haunted by a Ghostface killer (many of whom are film buffs, especially devoted to the Stab franchise, which keeps chugging along). This one begins much like Scream, as Ghostface stalks a suburban home, but then it is revealed that this is the opening scene of Stab 6, cutting to two young women (played by Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell) who are watching the film at home. Paquin’s character complains about the film they are watching, dismissing it wearily as “self-aware postmodern meta shit,” but then Bell’s character stabs her, and the meta-ness steps up still another level, as we realize that these characters are in Stab 7. Then we cut to a scene involving two more young women being stalked by Ghostface, after which it is several minutes before we’re sure this is finally happening in Scream 4 itself and not in still another film-within-a-film. The Stab franchise, though, keeps coming up, and we learn, among other things, that the first Stab was directed by Robert Rodriguez. Mostly, it’s the usual hijinks, highlighted by an all-star cast of rising young actresses, including Marielle Jaffe, Hayden Panettiere, and Emma Roberts as potential victims, not to mention Allison Brie (as the shark-like agent of Sidney Prescott, now a well-known celebrity and successful author) and Marley Shelton (as the deputy of Dewey, who is now the sheriff of Woodsboro). This one has lots of twists and turns (so many that it becomes a sort of running joke), the central one of which is that the character played by Roberts (who is terrific, by the way) is actually the Ghostface killer in this one. Her plan is to frame one of her victims, then present herself as the sole surviving victim, then become famous via the internet. Indeed, there’s a great deal of awareness of internet culture here, and several of the young characters are trying to make a splash on-line, while the killer in one of the Stab films stalks his victims via Facebook. Sidney, Dewey, and Gale triumph, of course, but this one does seem a bit tired. Still much more fun than the typical slasher film, but it’s not clear if this will trigger additional films in the future. One of the most striking things about the Scream franchise, incidentally, is the way it chronicles the evolution and growth of cellphone culture from 1996 to 2012. In Scream, such phones (referred to as “cellular phones”) are a clunky oddity. By Scream 4, the kids of the film live on their phones.
Craven’s death in 2015 would appear to have brought the Scream film franchise to an end, at least for a while. However, the franchise continued to move forward in the form of a television series that has aired on MTV since June of 2015, very much in the spirit of the film series, even if it does not always reach the same level of quality. For example, a character in the very first episode explains why a slasher-film television series could never work, indicating the high level of self-consciousness that informs the series. The series has featured a number of directors, including Leigh Janiak, the director of the highly interesting science fiction horror film Honeymoon (2014).
Meanwhile, the Scream sequels were not the only slasher films to show the influence of Scream. For example, in 1997, when 20-year-old Sarah Michelle Gellar was appearing in Scream 2 (and debuting in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), she also had a role in I Know What You Did Last Summer, scripted by Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Gellar gets knocked off pretty quickly in Scream 2, but had a larger role in I Know What You Did, actually surviving most of the film as a local beauty queen in a small fishing village in which she and three high-school buddies are stalked by a murderous fisherman they thought they had (mostly) accidentally killed in the summer after their high-school graduation. I Know was a hit, partly because of the attractive young cast that also features Jennifer Love Hewitt (as the Final Girl), Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze, Jr., whom Gellar would wed five years later. Anne Heche is also entertaining as a local countrified woman, who may be the scariest character in the film, just because she’s, well, countrified—and thus accustomed to killing stuff, apparently. Otherwise, it’s pretty pedestrian, but it’s easy to see why this film would be a hit with younger audiences, who might identify with the young characters.
Meanwhile, by 2000, when the Scream trilogy supposedly concluded, Keenen Ivory Wayans’s Scary Movie (2000) kicked the self-referential silliness up a notch with a sendup of recent horror movies (especially Scream), in the broad slapstick mode of spoofs like Airplane and Naked Gun. Of course, Scream is already so self-conscious and self-parodic that parodying it seems beside the point. (Scary Movie, incidentally, was the original working title of Scream.) Scary Movie itself is really a series of loosely connected skits and gags than an actual movie. And it’s definitely not scary. It’s all totally ridiculous, in fact, but some of the gags are pretty good fun, and it has spawned a popular franchise of such horror lampoons (Scary Movie 5 appeared in 2013), as well as inspiring spoofs of other popular genres, such as Epic Movie (2007), Meet the Spartans (2008), and Superhero Movie (2008).
In a completely different mode, Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) is a mockumentary in which a documentary film crew follows the slasher of the subtitle as he prepares for a big night of slashing. A forerunner to the later (and more successful) horror mocumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Behind the Mask exhibits a number of postmodern characteristics, including the fact that it takes place in a world in which previous slashers such as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddie Krueger are real—and frequently referenced as predecessors to Leslie Vernon. Ultimately, though, the film collapses into a relatively conventional slasher in the final sequences, as Vernon turns on the film crew and tries his best to do them in (but is thwarted because the young woman who is leading the crew is a virgin and thus of course able to defeat slashers).
Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011) also goes beyond the Scream sequence in its self-referentiality. It’s all about the way the characters view reality via a series of assumptions and expectations derived from watching films, to the point that the distinction between fiction and reality is hopelessly blurred, if there is one at all. Basically, the teens of the town of Grizzly Lake are being stalked by a serial killer, to which they respond with strategies that are completely mediated by their own viewing of slasher films. And then they have to travel back in time to save the world. It’s a long story, and it doesn’t make much sense, but that doesn’t really matter, because the plot is just one long opportunity for self-reflexive cleverness. It’s called, as they say in the film itself, post-irony.
A much more successful postmodern riff on the slasher genre can be found in David Robert Mitchell’s stylish It Follows (2014). Here, a slasher-like figure of unexplained supernatural origins inexorably stalks targets who can only escape by having sex with someone and thus passing the curse on to that person. Among other things, It Follows mixes images from the past and the present, creating a sort of alternate reality in which the two commingle. And yet, amid what would seem to be a very postmodern collapse of historical periods, it manages to maintain a distinction between past and present (especially in its setting in Detroit) that provides a potentially powerful reminder that historical change can (and inevitably does) occur.
If It Follows thus points the way toward postmodern horror that escapes the political ineffectuality decried by Jameson, the same cannot be said for The Final Girls (2015), which seems to have no interest in politics. Instead, this film is an exercise in genre pastiche that addresses virtually every convention of the slasher subgenre as it that goes all Rose of Cairo and breaks down the boundary between “reality” and the world of the slasher film as a group of teens inadvertently get caught inside their favorite slasher film, where they have to fend off a Jason Voorhees–type killer. (They succeed, only to find themselves suddenly trapped in the sequel.) The Final Girls is an entertaining film with better-than-average performances, especially from Taissa Farmiga as the Final Girl; it is also a quintessential postmodern artifact, both in its lack of political energy and in its blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality.
In You Might Be the Killer (2018) postmodern self-consciousness in the slasher subgenre reaches another high point, riffing on virtually every staple of the slasher film in telling the story of an attack on a summer camp by a deadly killer. Camp counselor Sam Wescott (Fran Kranz), struggling to survive, seeks advice by phoning his friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan), who works in a video store and just happens to be an expert on slasher films. She does keep him alive through most of the film—but also helps him to discover that it was he himself who was doing the killings, having been possessed by an evil mask. Ultimately, the curse of the mask is passed on to another killer, who promptly kills Sam. Then, two years later, Sam frantically calls Chuck again, having awakened to discover that he is not now dead, but undead. Funny at times, this one is a bit too contrived to really work as a horror film, but it does serve as a marker of just how familiar slasher-film conventions have become.
The extremity of cabin-in-the-woods and slasher films makes them ideal for spoofs of this type, though such films have inspired other forms of postmodern self-consciousness as well. Paramount here are the first two films of metal rocker Rob Zombie, who drew upon the extremity of predecessor films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (as well as the whole phenomenon of 1970s Grindhouse films) in his inaugural film, House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Not only does this film draw upon the imagery of such predecessors, but it employs this imagery in a very postmodern mode, producing an unending spectacle of violence with little concern for narrative coherence. Its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects (2005), is slightly more conventional but equally dependent on its predecessors in film, even foregrounding the fascination of its family of gruesome redneck serial killers with Marx Brothers movies. It also includes a strange postmodern ending that involves a mock conversion of the killers (who have been mostly the victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence in this film) into romantic outlaws, allowing them to go down in a blaze of bullets in the mode of the protagonists of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Zombie would later attempt a resurrection of the Halloween slasher franchise with Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009), adding considerable original backstory for Michael Myers but continuing to draw significantly (and in a mode of postmodern self-consciousness) upon predecessor films in that franchise and in slasher films in general.
Finally, I might mention that Pinedo highlights both the recent horror film’s transgression of classical horror film conventions and its co-opting of science fiction and suspense-thriller generic codes and structures as indications of its postmodern nature (14). Except for the science fiction part, this description seems to apply in a particularly obvious way to slasher films, which might explain Pinedo’s special interest in that subgenre. I might note, however, that even slasher films have sometimes veered into overtly science-fictional territory as well. Some key science fiction films—such as Alien (1979) and The Terminator (1984)—might clearly be read as slasher films, for example, but here I have more in mind what one might describe as the grafting of science fiction elements onto the basic matrix of the slasher film. For example, Jason X (2001), the tenth film in the Friday the 13th franchise, takes super-slasher Jason Voorhees (now played, for the fourth time, by Kane Hodder) into the 25th century—and into outer space, where humans now live after having ravaged the environment of earth to the point that the planet’s surface has become uninhabitable. This environmentalist motif, however, seems to be a mere narrative convenience, more an excuse for getting Jason into space than a political statement. Anyway, the film begins in the very near future, when Jason has been captured and is being studied by scientists because of his body’s amazing resilience and regenerative powers (which apparently don’t extend to his face, which is still one-eyed and all messed up). He of course escapes and wreaks havoc, but is finally cryogenically frozen by scientist Rowan LaFontaine (played by Lexa Doig, an actress who was then playing the title role in the science fiction television series Andromeda). In the process, however, LaFontaine also gets stabbed and frozen. Their two cryogenically-preserved bodies are then discovered by a mission from “Earth 2” (a distant planet that is now the main home of the human race), then resurrected and taken aboard a spaceship headed for Earth 2. Predictably, Jason once again wreaks havoc, and the attempts of the crew of the ship to blow him up and out into space (a technique used against the title monster in Alien as well) only land him in a high-tech robotic medical unit that repairs him and makes him stronger and more resilient than ever, even adding high-tech body armor and an improved hockey mask, thus creating a sort of super-hybrid of Jason and the Terminator. This new and improved Jason is eventually defeated (with the help of a sexbot reprogrammed to be a battlebot, no less) and apparently incinerated, though his new mask lands in a lake (again, of course) on planet Earth 2 below, raising the possibility of still another resurrection, because that’s the way the Friday the 13th franchise works. Indeed, as this film ends, two teenagers, seeing something fall into the lake, go to check it out. We suspect that they might be in big trouble. Jason X is bereft of truly interesting science fictional ideas, but it looks pretty good (partly thanks to its $14 million budget, still reasonably modest, but a far cry from the franchise’s humble beginnings), and the acting (by mostly Canadian actors) is a step above that in most Friday the 13th movies. It’s all a little extreme and over-the-top, and Jason’s famed resilience here becomes almost comical at times, while other aspects especially (the sexbot, played by sf veteran Lisa Ryder) introduce humor as well.
The most interesting thing about the film is its highly self-conscious attempt to create a slasher/science fiction hybrid. Indeed, postmodern hybridity rules the day in this film, which not only combines Jason with some new high-tech parts but even gives Jason some heroic qualities, essentially collapsing the boundary between good and evil. Granted, he is still a mindless and virtually unstoppable killing machine who wants to annihilate any living creature he comes across, but he’s also now a weird sort of superhero. One can easily imagine young audiences who would identify with him and cheer him on as he cuts a swathe through human society, especially in this one, where his victims are older, military-corporate authority types, rather than hapless teens. On the other hand, Doig, 28 when the film was released, could pass for about 19, allowing her character to substitute seamlessly for the usual Final Girl, though she’s definitely an intellectual upgrade over the Final Girls of most slasher films. Of course, the real stars of the slasher franchises of the 1980s had always been the slashers themselves: Freddie, Jason, and Michael Myers were what held their franchises together, not their victims or vanquishers. But the tendency literally to make Jason more sympathetic could definitely be seen as a postmodern turn. Incidentally, this tendency to take horror icons into outer space (preceded by science fiction slashers like Alien and Terminator) can also be seen in such films as Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) and Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997), so it’s nothing new here, though this one tries harder to at least look like a real sf movie.
The Turn to Comedy
Comedy has been an important element of the horror almost from the very beginning, with the Universal monster mashups of the 1940s representing a particularly prominent starting point for comedy—and one that clearly points toward the postmodern. Other comic highlights have occurred along the way as well, as in Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood (1959), a film so self-conscious of its own outrageousness that it can clearly be considered to be postmodern. Many of the 1970s films of Larry Cohen point toward the postmodern as well, hovering as they do on the edge of self-parodic comedy in their extremity. And, of course, Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974), discussed in the volume on Frankenstein films in The Horror Film Project, is one of the most successful horror comedies of all time.
1974 also saw the founding of Troma Entertainment, a company that has carved out a niche for itself as a maker of low-budget horror comedies so preposterously over-the-top that they can almost be considered a subgenre of their own. Films such as their Toxic Avenger series (beginning in 1984) have frequently found cult audiences–and have even launched the careers of a number of subsequently prominently actors, as when Marissa Tomei had tiny role in the original Toxic Avenger film. Troma’s films have thus paved the way for a number of other horror comedies by demonstrating that such films could indeed find an audience, no matter how tacky or outrageous.
If it was in the 1980s that Troma really hit its stride, then the same might be said for horror comedy in general. After all, one of the central cinematic events of the entire decade was the release of the original Ghostbusters in 1984. This film spawned an entire media franchise as well as a number of other ghost-related comedies; it has remained a central artifact of American popular culture since its original release and was rebooted (less successfully) in 2016.
The success of Ghostbusters certainly encouraged the production of other horror comedies. However, Ghostbusters was always more comedy than horror, and one might argue that the impact of something like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) was ultimately more important on horror film as a genre. This film turns to a kind of postmodern comedy-through-excess, though its comedy is further refined (and pushed even more toward the postmodern) in its even more influential first sequel (which is really more of a remake), Evil Dead II (1987). That latter film—with a nod to the other Evil Dead films as well—will be discussed in detail in the volume of The Horror Film Project on supernatural horror, a genre to which it serves as a sort of comic capstone. Comedy is also central to the effect of the third Evil Dead film (Armies of Darkness, 1992) and to Raimi’s later Drag Me to Hell (2009), a film that is discussed in detail later in this volume and a film that is conscious of its postmodern status in a number of ways.
If excess is the hallmark of the Evil Dead sequence, the early films of Peter Jackson deserve special mention as being among the most outrageous horror comedies ever made. Perhaps no director who didn’t work for Troma ever took so much delight in putting blood and gore on the screen than did the young Jackson in his first film Bad Taste (1987). Here, a group of earthlings do battle against a contingent of ugly ass (literally) aliens who have come to earth to harvest humans to use as meat for their intergalactic chain of fast food restaurants. This thing is mostly just silly, but it’s often hilarious—as when one character (played by Jackson himself) keeps having clumps of his brain fall out through that flap in the back of his skull, then grabs them and stuffs them back in. And the scene in which Derek is “born again” is a classic. Of sorts.
Jackson’s Braindead (1992, originally released in the U.S. as Dead Alive) is justifiably famous as one of the goriest movies ever made, and it is that. It’s also very funny: it’s zombie monster baby thingy is a horror comedy tour de force. Basically, the mother of protagonist Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) is bitten by an evil rat-monkey thing, causing her to become a zombie and to spread her zombiness to all with whom she comes into contact, creating a horde of zombies—though the creepiest and most horrible monster in the piece is Mrs. Cosgrove, who ultimately becomes a sort of giant queen of the zombies (though it turns out that she had been a murderous monster all along). Lionel and his new girlfriend Paquita (Diana Peñalver) manage to survive the onslaught and kill off the zombies in the biggest zombie battle bloodbath ever put on film. Jackson seems to have tried to imagine every possible way to dismember and destroy a human body and then to try to incorporate it into this film, though most of the zombies are simply chopped into bloody mincemeat with a lawnmower. It’s all pretty pointless entertainment, though it does have a great deal of visual flair.
Between the first two Evil Dead films, Re-Animator (1985)—discussed in the volume of this project on Frankenstein/Mad Scientist films—also provided evidence of the turn to postmodern comedy, a turn that would also be reflected in future films directly related to the Frankenstein motif, which has subsequently been used in a number of comic applications. One thinks here of Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker (1990), which is, in many ways a quite straightforward and simple variant on the Frankenstein story, injected with a powerful dose of postmodern craziness. Medical school castoff and would-be mad scientist Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz) makes a remote-controlled lawn mower for his pretty-but-chubby fiancée, Elizabeth Shelley (Patty Mullen), to give to her father for his birthday. Unfortunately, she’s apparently not real bright; demonstrating the mower at her dad’s birthday party, she accidentally mows herself and is chopped into “human salad.” Luckily, Franken is able to retrieve her head intact, then to blow up a gaggle of hookers by dosing them with super-crack, collecting the resulting carnage to assemble a new body for Elizabeth. He does a really good job, too, because the result comes out looking just like the head of gorgeous Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen sewn onto the body of … Penthouse Pet Patty Mullen (even if she is a bit mottled and purply)! Or, as the tag line goes, she has “all the right parts in all the right places.” However, she’s a little awkward, electrically charged, and super-strong. She also has the mind of a brain-damaged hooker (several hookers, actually), and when she hits the streets her other characteristics don’t bode well for her new customers. Lots of mayhem ensues. By the end, Elizabeth’s mind has been restored, but Jeffery’s body has been separated from his head by an angry pimp. So, turnabout being fair play, Elizabeth/Frankenhooker builds him a new body, using his notes, but his process only works on female body parts, so he ends up with a female body—and not a real good looking one, either. You can see why this one might be a cult hit, though, to tell the truth, it’s not really quite as much fun as it sounds.
Inspired by some of the same grindhouse exploitation films that have been an important inspiration for Quentin Tarantino, Henenlotter has been making over-the-top horror comedies for a long time, including the Basket Case series and Brain Damage (1988), in addition to Frankenhooker (1990). But Bad Biology (2008), which dares to go where no horror film has gone before, may be the best of the lot. Here, a young woman named Jennifer (Charlee Danielson) has mutant genitals (including at least seven clitorises) that make her sexually insatiable—and also cause her to produce weird mutant babies within two hours of having sex. Though very attractive, she has a great deal of trouble finding a man who can satisfy her, especially as she has a tendency to get so carried away that she kills her partners during sex. Then, at last, she meets Batz (Anthony Sneed), a man whose mutant penis literally has a mind of its own—and that mind only wants one thing, making Batz (or at least his penis) seemingly the perfect match for Jennifer. The penis gets out of control, though, and goes on a mad rape spree before finally finishing off (in more ways than one) both Batz and Jennifer, while dying itself in the process. Never fear, though: Jennifer, though seemingly dying, quickly gives birth to a baby mutant penis that takes off in search of adventures of its own as the film ends. I know it sounds pretty awful, but it’s actually quite well made, with some excellent effects and cinematography. The acting is even pretty good, except for Sneed, who’s pretty bad, but that’s almost appropriate. Granted, this film is totally ridiculous, but it has some serious things to say about the rather repressed and artificial representation of sexuality in contemporary American film as a whole and horror film in particular, looking back to the freer, anything-goes mentality of early 1970s exploitation cinema.
In recent years, films such as Shaun of the Dead (2004)—discussed in the volume of the Horror Film Project on zombie films—and What We Do in the Shadows (2014)—discussed in the volume of the Horror Film Project on vampire films—have demonstrated the increasing potential of horror comedy in a postmodern age in which audiences can be expected to be quite familiar with the conventions of virtually every subgenre, opening up new comic potential in the subversion of those conventions.
The Cabin in the Woods
Among other things, the first two Evil Dead films pointed out the comic potential of the cabin-in-the-woods subgenre of horror film. And, given that this subgenre often intersects with the slasher subgenre, it is perhaps no surprise that cabin-in-the-woods comedy often has a distinctly postmodern tone. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002)set the tone for this sort of comedy, with the highly self-conscious bodily destruction of its main characters—even the Final Girl, having seemingly escaped the main danger, is flattened by a truck in the end. But this one is mostly concerned with the effects of a super-powerful flesh-eating virus that attacks a group of college kids when they repair to a lakeside cabin for a little R&R, including some extremely graphic depictions of the effect of the virus.
Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) isn’t quite as graphic as Cabin Fever, but it is generally funnier. Adding in a dose of hillbilly horror just for fun, this onemight just be the definitive cabin-in-the woods horror comedy. Its riffs on specific horror film motifs (such as Leatherface’s famous chainsaw dance) can be genuinely hilarious. It is discussed in the volume of the Horror Film Project devoted to hillbilly horror.
Not quite as funny, but more overtly postmodern, is The Cabin in the Woods (2012), directed by Drew Goddard, produced by Joss Whedon, and co-written by Whedon and Goddard. It shows much of the knowing postmodern coolness that was central to Whedon’s best-known work in the horror genre, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)—on which Goddard served as a writer. Meanwhile, the film indicates its postmodern self-consciousness by taking its very title from one of the kinds of horror films in which it participates, indicating the way in which the trope of a group of young people encountering unimaginable horrors while staying in a remote cabin, had, by 2012, become something of a cliché. Here, Whedon and Goddard introduce a number of wrinkles (including a family of hillbilly zombies), then add an extra Lovecraftian touch by suggesting a sort of alternative universe in which those horrors are real—but are generated by a clandestine organization that generates those horrors as a sort of ritualistic substitute that helps to hold off ancient (and more unimaginable horrors) that lie in waiting, threatening to break through to the surface of the human world if those rituals are not performed. This film is discussed in considerably more detail below in this volume.
The cabin-in-the-woods film has continued to produce new specimens even so, though few have reached the heights of the three films just mentioned. In Jordan Rubin’s Zombeavers (2014), for example, three college girls go off to the remote cabin on the side of a lake for a fun-filled filled weekend, only to discover that the lake is inhabited by vicious beavers that have been turned into killer zombies thanks to toxic chemical spill in their lake. Surprisingly enough—for a film that depends on a ridiculous premise, buoyed by a great deal of gross-out humor and numerous “beaver” jokes so sophomoric that even the characters within the film complain about them—Zombeavers is quite entertaining, though partly because it illustrates the way in which ridiculous horror films are at the forefront of so-bad-they’re-good films.
Postmodern Horror in Other Subgenres
While the slasher film has been at the forefront of the production of postmodern horror films, films with an obvious postmodern inclination have appeared in virtually every subgenre of horror, especially beginning in the 1980s, though there are clearly postmodern elements in the way the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s draw upon their Universal predecessors. There are also postmodern resonances in the way horror films such as How to Make a Monster (1958) and Frankenstein (1970) are actually about the making of horror films. But the engaged horror films of the 1970s, so admired by critics such as Robin Wood, would seem to represent a sort of last-ditch resistance to the onslaught of postmodernism, which then kicked into high gear in the Reaganite decade of the 1980s. Postmodern modern films in a variety of subgenres highlighted the horror film genre in the 1980s, including postmodern werewolf films, an homage to the horror comics of the 1950s, and a turn to postmodern horror in the vampire film.
Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981) was an important step toward the postmodern consciousness of 1980s horror films, not so much in its own style as in its intense self-consciousness concerning its participation in a long horror film tradition. For one thing, the film includes several scenes of characters watching The Wolf Man (1941) on TV. There are other clever references to the horror film tradition as well, one of the best of which involves the casting of John Carradine, who had played Dracula in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), as a werewolf who happens to be named “Erle Kenton.” The real Kenton, of course, was the director of the House of films and, more importantly, the director of the brilliant Island of Lost Souls (1932). Meanwhile, Patrick McNee plays Dr. George Waggner, a media pundit/psychiatrist, who also happens to be a leader of the werewolves, while the real George Waggner the director of The Wolf Man. This Waggner also runs a self-help retreat (somewhat along the lines of the famous Esalen Institute, founded in Big Sur 1962 and still in operation as of this writing) for werewolves that also allows the film to get in a number of digs at the booming California self-help industry. Anyway, The Howling is something of a departure in that its werewolves are less sympathetic and more frightening than usual (including the central motif of a secret conspiracy of werewolves).
1981 also saw the release of the even more postmodern An American Werewolf in London (1981), a stylish and entertaining film that displays a number of grisly, bloody moments, as well as a number of hilarious ones. (The scene of David Naughton prancing naked through the London Zoo with his genitals cupped modestly in his hands, having awakened there after a werewolf binge, is about as funny as it gets.) It also contains a number of self-conscious, postmodern moments of dialogue with the tradition of werewolf films, especially 1941’s The Wolf Man, while adding an unusual element in that, here, while victims of werewolf attacks who do not die still become werewolves, now victims who are killed become zombies, walking the earth as the undead as long as the werewolf’s bloodline continues. Despite the style (which includes particularly effective special effects in the werewolf transformations) and the humor, the film retains the traditional tragic aspect of werewolf films, as Naughton’s character gradually learns of his affliction and is eventually killed because of it.
Creepshow (1982) was written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero, so it certainly has excellent horror movie credentials. And it’s actually quite an entertaining film, though it’s actually an anthology of five short films, all of which read a bit like episodes of the Tales from the Crypt television series. Which is not surprising, because Creepshow is first and foremost a tribute to the classic horror comics of the 1950s, especially the EC titles like the original Tales from the Crypt. Indeed, there are all sorts of gestures toward the comics, including a number of framing devices that make shots in the film look like frames in a comic. Indeed, the entire film can be characterized as a postmodern pastiche of 1950s horror comics. It’s all over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek, just like those original comics. More funny than scary, it’s still a treat if you’re in the mood for some light entertainment. The emphasis is on the light, though, and there’s not much in the way of social commentary or serious exploration of ideas, even if the original comics practically caused a national scandal and clearly stood as a potentially subversive alternative to the conformist culture of the 1950s. King, by the way, is a hoot in one segment as a dimwitted farmboy who encounters a meteor that falls on his farm, then contaminates him with “meteor shit.”
By the early 1980s, it was becoming almost de rigueur for horror films to drop in allusions to previous horror films, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the eponymous carnival exhibit of Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse (1981)—like most such funhouse exhibits—is a virtual compendium of motifs from horror films. Hooper, though, adds the additional touch of having his central “monster” hide his hideous facial deformity through most of the film by wearing a mask of Frankenstein’s monster and pretending that he is part of the shtick of the funhouse. And, of course, this monster turns out to have other things in common with Frankenstein’s monster as well, including a tendency to get into lots of trouble without really meaning any harm.
The self-conscious cool of The Lost Boys brought postmodernism to the vampire film in 1987. Filled with references to contemporary popular culture, this film seems to want to be critical of consumerism, but is itself a glossy consumerist artifact. One of the major effects of this film, then, is to demonstrate the difficulty of getting outside the ideology of consumerist capitalism, a difficulty that Jameson has seen as central to postmodernism. This film is discussed in detail later in this volume.
The huge success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999 made found-footage horror a major turn-of-the-millennium phenomenon, though that film itself in many ways remains the most important example of that phenomenon. Even prominent critic Roger Ebert (normally not a huge fan of the horror genre) gave The Blair Witch Project a full four-star rating, calling it “extraordinarily effective.” One could, of course, consider the found-footage motif a mere postmodern boundary-blurring gimmick, though it works pretty well here. We never really see the witch, just indirect evidence of her presence. What we mostly see is the growing terror experienced by the students as they become lost in the woods, then gradually encounter this evidence, making this more a “psychological horror” film than a “witchcraft” film, and it’s a pretty good one, even if it’s not quite as good as its reputation might indicate. A slicker, studio-produced sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was released in 2000, but was much less successful than the original, and a second planned sequel was scrapped.
Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007) was perhaps the most direct heir to The Blair Witch Project as a found-footage horror film. Here, a young couple become convinced that their home is haunted, so they set up cameras to try to produce evidence of the haunting. What’s left of that evidence (after the presence, which turns out to be an evil demon, possesses the woman and kills the man) is the film that we see. This approach is surprisingly effective, so much so that the film, made for roughly $15,000 grossed nearly $200 million in worldwide box office. It also became the founding film of what is now a six-film franchise, though none of the sequels were as effective as the original.
The J. J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield (2008) took found-footage horror into the realm of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. The film generated quite a bit of buzz when it was released, largely because of the echoes of 9/11 that run through the film. And those echoes do add considerably to what is otherwise a fairly unremarkable effort. It’s sort of Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project. In the film, young Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is leaving for a big new job in Japan as the “vice-president of something,” though he doesn’t really seem very vice-presidential. His group of improbably attractive young friends then gather for a going-away party, which is being documented on video. Then something attacks New York. It’s a giant tentacled monster from somewhere (maybe the ocean depths, maybe another planet, maybe a scientific experiment gone wrong—we never find out). It is also aided by an army of smaller spidery-crabby things. And it’s all caught on the shaky hand-held camera from the party, until finally the camera and the people are buried beneath rubble. Apparently, the humans eventually won the battle, though, because the camera was later found so we could have this movie. In my view, the handheld camera, which is supposed to add authenticity, seems here like more of a contrivance, thus achieving the opposite effect of the one intended. After all, it seems highly unlikely that anyone (especially an amateur) would capture this much good footage on a handheld camera. That this thing is still very cinematic does, though, say something about the collapse of the boundary between images and reality in the postmodern world. Though Cloverfield was a hit, it actually grossed less than The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, despite its $25 million budget.
The 2011 Canadian film Grave Encounters (directed by the “Vicious Brothers”—Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz) is a relatively undistinguished effort, but it is worth mentioning here because it ratchets up the postmodern self-consciousness of the found-footage genre. Here, we are treated to the found footage from an ill-fated episode of a reality television series (also called Grave Encounters), during the filming of which the entire crew of the series disappeared. This series—very much in the mode of the American series Ghost Hunters and others that were popular at the time—features a group of paranormal investigators who go to various supposedly haunted spots to try to gather evidence of paranormal activity. In the episode featured in the film, they go to a particularly creepy locale, the long-closed “Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital” (the footage in the film was actually shot at the defunct Riverview Hospital, a mental institute in Coquitlam, British Columbia). Long rumored to be haunted after having been the site of various gruesome events, the hospital is a perfect location for spookiness, making Grave Encounters a sort of reality-show version of the much better horror film Session 9 (2001), which also takes place in an abandoned and haunted psychiatric hospital. Much of the “unedited” footage of Grave Encounters involves behind-the-scenes shots that make it clear that the film crew members, led by the show’s host, Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), are perfectly willing to fake evidence of paranormal encounters in order to attract more viewers to their show—but then, of course, real supernatural forces descend upon them. The members of the crew are picked off one by one—until nothing is left except the videotape they shot (with no explanation of why the supernatural forces that did them in allowed the tape to survive).
The Major Postmodernists Do Horror
No discussion of postmodern horror would be complete without an acknowledgement of how many of the leading postmodernist directors have worked in the horror genre, suggesting the growing convergence of horror and postmodernism from the 1980s forward. For example, De Palma continued to produce horror thrillers in the Hitchcock mode in the 1980s, with his Body Double (1984) serving as a highlight of the decade. This time De Palma most obviously draws from Rear Window, but with both Psycho and Vertigo thrown in as well. De Palma even goes to the extent of casting a young Melanie Griffith in a key role, vaguely alluding to the casting of her mother, Tippi Hedren, in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). But now De Palma is not just performing a pastiche of Hitchcock: he’s performing a pastiche of De Palma performing a pastiche of Hitchcock. Body Double is also explicitly a film making films, featuring an actor who is engaged, in fact, in making a horror film entitled Vampire’s Kiss. Meanwhile, Body Double is shot through with all sorts of reminders of its own artificiality, including the title metaphor, which is reiterated in one final scene from the filming of Vampire’s Kiss, during which an actress is replaced by a body double—in a murder scene in a shower, no less. Actually, though, this particular shower scene is less reminiscent of Psycho than of De Palma’s own Dressed to Kill, with a side glance at the shower scene in De Palma’s Blow Out, which is essentially a slasher film.
Other key postmodernist filmmakers of the 1980s engaged in horror films as well. For example, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which includes strong horror elements, is also one of the central films discussed by Jameson as exemplary cultural products of the postmodern era in his seminal work Postmodernism (1991). It has been widely cited as postmodern, in fact, largely because ofits refusal to identify its historical setting, freely mixing images that appear to derive from different historical periods. Amid a concerted critique of small-town America via its representation of the lurid events that take place beneath the superficial tranquility of the town of Lumberton, Blue Velvet presents us with Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, in what might just be his greatest role), one of the scariest characters in American film; his crowd of demented minions are also just as scary (and as weird) as anything in any horror film, period. (Kim Newman includes Blue Velvet on his list of “Weirdo Horror Films” in Nightmare Movies.) What Lynch’s films represent is declaredly not reality but other representations of reality, while at the same time suggesting that those representations might be misleading—which explains why they are sometimes so confusing to viewers who attempt to interpret them as being “about” the real world. Thus, the superficial tranquility of Lumberton—with its blooming flowers, singing birds, white picket fences, and friendly firemen—is quite transparently derived from nostalgic clichés of the American 1950s, with a look reminiscent more of a Disneyworld town than any real town that ever existed in the 1950s or any other time. Horror lurks beneath this Disneyfied façade, however.
Many of Lynch’s other films are liberally laced with horror-film elements, from the monstrous baby of Eraserhead (1977), to the sinister supernatural killer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), to the nightmarish figure behind Winkie’s in Mulholland Drive (2001). All of Lynch’s films are rightly considered to be postmodern as well, including a consistent tendency to blur boundaries between different time periods and between fantasy and reality. Lynch, as perhaps the most avant-garde of America’s leading postmodernist directors, thus serves as a key indicator of the way in which one consequence of the collapse of conventional hierarchies in postmodern culture is the adoption of horror-film themes and images even by the most artistically-respected directors.
Another important postmodernist filmmaker who has extensively engaged with the horror genre is Tim Burton, whose Beetlejuice (1988) is really a sequence of images that spoof various horror motifs, with only the most tenuous narrative thread connecting them. In the film, a husband and wife are killed in an auto accident and find that, by the rules of the afterlife, their ghosts are required to remain in their former house for a period of 125 years before moving on. That, in itself, does not seem so bad, until the house is bought by a horrid family that makes life there unpleasant. So the ghosts try to frighten away the new inhabitants, with the help (sort of) of the outrageous Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a professional bio-exorcist who specializes in getting rid of living humans who are causing problems for the dead. In any case, the real story of Beetlejuice is not the plot, but the sequence of superb sight gags that help it to turn the horror/ghost story genre into an opportunity for high visual comedy, highlighted by the over-the-top performance of Keaton as the preposterous-looking, sex-obsessed title character. If Beetlejuice turns the horror story into comedy, it also subverts the boundaries of genre in that, like Burton’s earlier Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), it at first appears to be a children’s film, but actually contains a great deal of adult material. For example, many of the jokes in the film involve allusions to other films—including horror films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Exorcist (1973)—that many children would probably not recognize. There is also a darkly pessimistic undertone to the film’s representation of the afterlife that is hardly typical of children’s film. Here, the afterlife turns out to involve not an escape from life’s troubles and worries but, if anything, an intensification of them. In particular, the afterworld itself is a bureaucratic tangle of waiting rooms, offices, and endless paperwork, simply extending (and perhaps even intensifying) the routinization that penetrates everyday life under late capitalism. In Beetlejuice, the postmodern inability to imagine a better utopian future is extended to the ultimate, beyond the historical world to an afterlife of eternal, regimented tedium.
Burton’s horror films are rather lighthearted, but they still have some dark arteries. And they are almost like slide-shows, fragmented streams of images, and in this sense might be said to employ avant-garde montage techniques. Yet the actual content of these images streams is derived almost exclusively from pop cultural materials, signaling their participation in the phenomenon of postmodernism. Typical here is the decidedly strange Edward Scissorhands (1990), a film that brings new meaning to the notion that postmodern film typically involves frequent cuts. Edward Scissorhands, which I discuss in detail elsewhere, isessentially a postmodern retelling of the Frankenstein story (Postmodern Hollywood 30–33). Italso looks back to Burton’s Vincent (1982) by casting horror icon Vincent Price as a mysterious Frankensteinian inventor who creates an artificial man (the title character, played by Johnny Depp) dies before completing the project, leaving the man with scissors for hands, somewhat in the mode of Freddy Krueger. Significant misadventures ensue when Edward Scissorhands wanders into the human suburb below, inadvertently causing a great deal of havoc, as his great Frankensteinian predecessor had done.
Though directed by Henry Selick, the utterly delightful The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) could clearly be described as Burtonesque, partly because it is based on a concept originated by Burton and partly because Burton served as a producer for the film and clearly influenced its visual style. Nightmare is a unique stop-motion animated musical that I have discussed in some detail elsewhere (Disney 119–122). The plot basically involves the efforts of the horror-film inhabitants of Halloween Town to take over Christmas, as well as their own holiday. This one again, though is all about the images, with the plot serving merely as an excuse to produce one startling image (and one rousing musical number, under the guidance of Danny Elfman) after another. Ultimately, order is restored, and the inhabitants of Halloween Town decide to stick to the holiday they know best. Meanwhile, the fact that Halloween Town is obviously so much more interesting than the pristine Christmas Town serves as a sort of advertisement for the vitality of horror film and its gruesome imagery. Incidentally, the film was made in conjunction with Burton’s former employers at Disney, which released the film to theaters under its Touchstone Pictures label (normally reserved for films aimed at adult viewers) because it felt that the look and subject matter of the film were too dark and scary to carry the Disney brand name. Over the years, though, Nightmare has become a cult favorite and has been embraced by Disney as its own.
Finally, I might note that all of Quentin Tarantino’s films are liberally laced with nods to earlier films and genres of a kind that resembles the postmodern nostalgia described by Jameson in relation to neo-noir and other postmodern films. Film noir, the French New Wave, Hong Kong martial arts films, and Westerns (both American and Spaghetti) are frequently referenced in Tarantino’s films, for example. Tarantino was also particularly influenced by the bloody and violent “grindhouse” films of the 1970s, a fact he openly acknowledges in Death Proof (2007) an extended pastiche of grindhouse exploitation horror, thus bringing Tarantino’s postmodern pastiche overtly into the realm of horror (though early films such as the Kill Bill sequence had often veered into horror territory as well). Death Proof, as were so many of the original grindhouse films, was shown as part of a double feature, along with Robert Rodriquez’s Planet Terror, a revved-up postmodern zombie film.
THE LOST BOYS (1987): DIRECTOR JOEL SCHUMACHER
In “San Junipero,” the fourth episode of the third season of the Netflix anthology series Black Mirror, computer simulation is used to create a virtual reality version of the year 1987 to which sick and dying patrons in the future can have their consciousnesses downloaded, allowing them to live a carefree life in healthy young “bodies.” Meanwhile, the sense of being in 1987 in the simulation is achieved largely through populating the virtual town of San Junipero with elements of popular culture from that year. To remove one’s consciousness into such a simulation is perhaps the purest form of escapism, so perhaps it is no surprise that the year 1987, when popular culture was dominated by an escapist impulse, was chosen for this enterprise. Perhaps it is also no surprise that one of the works of 1987 popular culture used in the episode is Joel Schumacher’s vampire film The Lost Boys. Thus, in one scene we see a giant poster for the The Lost Boys on the side of a building, bearing the caption “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” Combined with the fact that The Lost Boys takes place in an idyllic California beach town that is much like San Junipero itself, the poster (sans the vampire reference) seems an ideal advertisement for the simulated town, where patrons can indeed party all they want and stay young forever.
The Lost Boys was a true landmark in vampire film, bringing audiences a group of vampires who could still be menacing but who, by and large, were younger, cooler, and more fun-loving than virtually any vampires they had seen before. As such, it also influenced a number of youth-oriented vampire films that came after it, perhaps most importantly the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which eventually evolved into the television series of the same title, one of the most important vampire-related works of all time. The Lost Boys also triggered two undistinguished direct-to-video sequels, The Lost Boys: The Tribe (2008) and The Lost Boys: The Thirst (2010).
The Lost Boys begins (as does “San Junipero,” for that matter) as the camera glides across the waters of the Pacific, moving toward an oceanside town. Then we see the lights of a beachfront boardwalk amusement park, emphasizing the fun nature of the town. A cut to a carousel in the park shows happy young people enjoying the ride. But then we see a group of young punks walking through the horses, led by David (Kiefer Sutherland). They seem to be looking for trouble, and trouble indeed ensues when David starts to harass a young woman who is riding on one of the horses. A security guard pulls David away and reminds him that he and his friends have been warned to stay off the boardwalk. They back off, but one senses that the trouble isn’t over.
To this point, The Lost Boys seems to be very much like any number of other films featuring misguided youth. In the next scene, however, we see the guard walking toward his car through an empty parking lot, the boardwalk having just shut down for the night. Then something unseen and obviously terrifying attacks him from above. Whatever it is can apparently fly and is apparently powerful, because it rips he door off the guard’s car as he attempts to get into it. Whatever it is, of course, is vampires, David and his gang, having returned for revenge. The film doesn’t reveal this fact for a while, however, because it next cuts to a daylight scene in which we see the freshly-divorced Lucy Emerson (Diane Wiest) arriving, U-Haul trailer in tow, with sons Michael and Sam (Jason Patric and Corey Haim) in scenic Santa Carla, where they are to live with the boys’ grandpa (Barnard Hughes).
The seemingly idyllic town seems a perfect place for the little family to get a fresh start, though we already know that sinister forces are afoot in the town. This sense that the town has a dark underbelly is immediately reinforced when Sam observes, as they drive past the city limits, that the town “smells like someone died.” In addition, as they drive past a billboard promoting the town as a peaceful seaside retreat, we see that someone has spray-painted on the back side of the billboard the ominous declaration that Santa Carla is the “murder capital of the world.” To top things off, the soundtrack immediately kicks into a cover version of the Doors’ 1967 classic “People Are Strange” (performed by Echo and the Bunnymen), further adding to the vague atmosphere of eeriness and menace that is already building in the film’s first few minutes. Opening credits roll as the song plays over shots of an extremely diverse population of strange-looking locals, punctuated by shots of a bulletin board covered with missing-persons flyers. Something strange is clearly going on in Santa Carla.
Of course, in such a such a youth-oriented film, one would expect the soundtrack to be important, and one of the aspects that makes The Lost Boys an ongoing favorite with vampire films fans is the music. Thomas Newman’s score effectively creates a sense of horror where needed in a film that might otherwise have become a bit too cool and light-hearted to be effective as a vampire film. Much of the other music enhances the atmosphere of threat, including the haunting theme that opens the film, Gerard McMann’s “Cry Little Sister.” But this is a fun film, and some of the music is added mostly for entertainment value, as in the cleverly chosen “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” performed by rock legend Roger Daltrey during the closing credits, and two tracks by the Australian band INXS, just moving into their peak period of popularity in 1987.
Building the film around the notion of an idyllic small American town that hides a dark secret was, of course, not new to The Lost Boys. Only one year earlier, in Blue Velvet, David Lynch had employed a similar motif in exploring the crazed criminal forces that lay beneath the surface of the quiet town of Lumberton, North Carolina. But perhaps the most direct predecessor to The Lost Boy in this sense was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, which did something similar for the real California town of Santa Rosa. The Lost Boys was filmed mostly in Santa Cruz, California (including the boardwalk scenes), but the name of the town was changed in the film to avoid offending the locals.
What The Lost Boys adds to the motif, of course, is the fact that David and his gang of motorcycle delinquents are vampires—in many ways fairly traditional ones. They share the traditional lust for blood and intolerance of sunlight, for example, and they also have common vampire abilities such as flying and the ability to create illusions in the minds of others. Thus, in one memorable scene in which the group is sharing Chinese food with Michael, they cause him to perceive rice as maggots and noodles as worms. They also appear to share the evangelical urge to convert others to vampirism, though it is not clear how much of this particular urge actually emanates just from Max, their older-generation vampire sire (Edward Herrmann). In any case, the most important vampire characteristic for the purposes of this film is eternal youth—as the title (which is taken from the name of the group of boys who never age in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan) indicates. This motif, of course, also allows the film to be cast with attractive young actors who might appeal to a young movie-going audience. For example, in addition to Sutherland’s David, the young vampires include Marko Davies, played by Alex Winter, who would go on to achieve fame two years later as Bill S. Preston, Esq., in the teen cult classic Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But the real draws in The Lost Boys for teen and college audiences are the romantic leads Patric and Jami Gertz, who had starred together a year earlier in the science fiction film Solarbabies. Gertz—who had appeared in such 1980s teen films as John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984)—plays Star, a young woman who is in the process of becoming a vampire, a process into which Michael is soon initiated as well, bringing him into contact with Star (whom he had earlier spotted during a concert scene featuring a performance by shirtless sax player Tim Cappello) and sparking a romance between them, much to David’s jealous disapproval.
Star is a vampire with a heart of gold—presumably because she has yet to be entirely divested of her human characteristics and is still merely a vampire in the making. At several points, she attempts to warn or protect Michael as he moves down the road toward vampirism, and she seems to develop genuine feelings for him. She is also very protective of Laddie (Chance Michael Corbitt), a young boy who is also in the process of transforming into a vampire—and thus seems fated to remain a child forever. Luckily, the film stipulates that such half-vampires will revert to their human state if the head vampire in charge of their transition is killed, which of course does eventually occur. There are moments of bloody violence in this film, moments when the attractive young vampires turn literally ugly, but there are limits to how dark a film can go and still hope to market itself successfully to a young audience.
The film also features a budding older-generation romance, as Lucy begins to be courted soon after arrival in town by Max, who is the owner of a local video store. Max’s store, which features an entire wall of television screens, seems to be the embodiment of media-oriented late-1980s consumer culture. As Rob Latham puts it, “What Max represents is the incarnate power of consumer culture itself. … His glitzy video parlor vends mass fantasy to all of Santa Carla, a fact of which he is notably proud” (62). Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Max is also the sire of the youthful gang of vampires, providing a not-so-subtle suggestion that America’s contemporary youth have been led into their wanton ways by the corporate culture of their elders. Meanwhile, in an echo of a dynamic often found in the culture of the 1980s, Max is courting Lucy largely because he needs a mother for his unruly gang of young vampires, hoping that her maternal influence will help to tame them a bit.
For additional appeal to young audiences, The Lost Boys also features Michael’s younger brother Sam in the role that solidified the fifteen-year-old Haim’s status as a rising teen star. Just as Michael falls in with David’s gang, Sam finds friends in Santa Carla when he happens into a comic-book store staffed by the Frog Brothers, Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Allan (Jamison Newlander). Feldman—who had already appeared in such films as Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), and Stand by Me (1986)—was also a rising star at the time. He and Haim clearly clicked in The Lost Boys and subsequently became widely known in American pop culture as “The Two Coreys,” appearing together in additional films such as License to Drive (1988) and Dream a Little Dream (1989), as well as in their own television reality show, “The Two Coreys” (2007–2008).
The Frog Brothers, avid readers of horror comics, seem to be the only locals who are aware that Santa Clara is infested with vampires. Sam himself is quite skeptical of their claims about the infestation or about their status as vampire hunters, but he is eventually won over to their cause. Having studied up on vampire lore, the boys then employ every weapon in the traditional vampire hunter’s arsenal—crosses, holy water, garlic, stakes—as they take on the gang, which they manage to defeat with the help of Michael, who uses his growing vampire powers against the gang, killing David in a climactic battle by impaling him on a set of antlers. However, it is only after Grandpa kills Max by impaling him on a sharpened fencepost that Michael, Star, and Laddie once again become human.
When they first arrive at Grandpa’s house, Sam suggests that the place looks like something from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a diagnosis that seems especially apt when he and Michael discover the gruesome-looking room where Grandpa practices taxidermy. Sam is particularly concerned that Grandpa doesn’t have a TV, which means no MTV, which (for Sam) means no civilization. In this film, however, television culture is inextricably linked with vampirism, suggesting that television is sucking the life out of America’s youth, so Grandpa’s lack of a television ultimately sets him up as a force opposed to television-driven consumer culture. It is thus not surprising when he ultimately saves the day by staking Max, which also releases Michael, Star, and Laddie from their incipient vampirism, turning them back into humans.
The Lost Boys is sprinkled with the iconography of a potentially more authentic popular culture that stands opposed to the thoroughly commodified MTV culture that the film overtly criticizes. For example, the Doors song that plays over the opening credits seems to function in this way, standing as a warning against the degraded nature of the culture of Santa Carla rather than as an example of that culture. On the other hand, that the actual song used in the film is a 1980s cover of the original suggests the ways in which the vampirical culture of the 1980s appropriates and feeds on its predecessors, making all things grist for its mill. Meanwhile, the suggestion of 1960s music as more authentic than the glossy music of the 1980s also potentially inheres in the Sgt. Pepper’s-style drum major jacket that Laddie wears throughout the film, marking him as a bearer of innocence who has yet to be thoroughly corrupted by the vampires (and who will ultimately be saved from their influence). Grandpa’s home, in particular, contains a number of such images, as in the case of his vintage Ford Fairlane, which sports on its dash a bobblehead of Dodgers star Sandy Koufax, a clean-living icon of 1960s baseball. Grandpa also, in lieu of watching television, reads TV Guide, suggesting the inherent superiority of print culture to television culture.
The comics read by Sam and the Frog Brothers also potentially stand as an alternative to the vampiric culture of the modern media, though the fact that the best literary alternatives the film can muster up are TV Guide magazine and comic books suggests a poverty in American literary culture that makes Americans easy prey for the vampirism of modern media conglomerates. In the same way, the counterculture of the 1960s serves as a rather ineffectual Other to the media culture of the 1980s. The parents of the Frog Brothers are apparently ex-hippies who have found their own way of turning on and dropping out: their ownership of the comic-book store where their sons apparently do all of the real work allows them to sit about in a drug-induced haze, completely unaware of what is really going on in Santa Carla. Lucy herself is an ex-hippie from the 1960s, and, while she certainly means well and does her best to be a good mother, she, too, is clueless about contemporary reality. As far as she can see, the youth of the 1980s differ very little from the rebellious youth of her own generation—except perhaps that they have snazzier clothes.
This off-the-cuff suggestion is not meant by Lucy to be a serious analysis, but it contains an important grain of truth, even though the film seems to want us to take this statement as an example of her cluelessness. One thing that has clearly advanced between the 1960s and the 1980s is consumerism, of which clothing is a leading element. One thinks here of Thomas Frank’s argument that, while the counterculture of the 1960s was ostensibly opposed to capitalist orthodoxy (and especially to the staid conformism of the 1950s), much of what it did was thoroughly aligned with and supportive of the ethos of consumer capitalism. For Frank, treating fashion as a key indicator of the trends he describes, the counterculture of the 1960s was actively encouraged by Madison Avenue, which saw the movement as a way more to open markets than to open minds, creating a new demand for “cool” products. Indeed, for Frank the parallels between the counterculture and certain changes in capitalist business practices in the 1960s suggest that, instead of a revolution against mainstream capitalist values, the 1960s counterculture “may be more accurately understood as a stage in the development of the values of the American middle class, a colorful installment in the twentieth century drama of consumer subjectivity” (29). In other words, the apparent liberation of the 1960s actually extended the penetration of capitalism into every aspect of American life, allowing capitalist ideas to exercise an unprecedented hold even on the minds of those who thought they were actively resisting it.
The Lost Boys seems to support Frank’s view that the youth rebellion of the 1960s did little to stem the tide of capitalist development and might, in fact, have been largely a part of that development, leading directly to the Reaganite 1980s. Viewed in this way, we must question the inefficacy of the various forms of counterculture that appear in the film. The various eccentric locals who are shown during the opening credits might appear, on the face of it, to be rebelling against conformism. Or maybe they are simply displaying a different form of conformism, in which everyone feels compelled to be different, rather than feeling compelled to be the same. And it is certainly difficult to see how all the characters on the beach could possibly mount anything like a coherent political movement. Even Laddie’s Sgt. Pepper’s jacket, emanating from the presumably more authentic rebellions of the 1960s, becomes suspect. The Beatles, after all, were themselves one of the great media and marketing successes of the 1960s, in some ways epitomizing the phenomena that the film, through its representation of Max and the youthful vampires, seems to want to criticize. And what could encapsulate Frank’s vision of the ideological complicity between the 1960s counterculture and modern consumer capitalism more than the use of the Beatles’ song “Revolution”—which dates from 1968, the same year as “People Are Strange”—in a commercial for Nike sneakers that aired in 1987, the same year The Lost Boys was released? Finally, it should be noted that, in addition to ex-hippie types such as Lucy and the elder Frogs, the members of the vampire gang are themselves images of youthful rebellion. Yet, in point of fact, they are the metaphorical offspring of Max, the film’s representative of American corporate power—who has been the creator of their rebellion all along, even if it is never made clear just how thoroughly he controls David and the other young vampires, whom he seems to regard as being somewhat out of hand.
In short, it might well be that the 1960s counterculture is not the Other of the consumer culture of the 1980s, but is in fact the progenitor of that culture. This suggestion then highlights the importance of Grandpa in the film, given that he is the only human figure in the film whose formative years pre-date the 1960s. And he is an important figure, despite the fact that he at first appears to be nothing more than a stereotype of the crusty and somewhat eccentric grandfather figure. Based on age alone, one is tempted, in fact, to see Grandpa as a representative of the 1930s, when proletarian culture in the U.S. was at its zenith, despite (or, actually, because of) the fact that capitalism was at its nadir. There are, however, no real indications in the film that Grandpa is to be read in this way. His Ford Fairlane convertible is a 1957 model; Koufax, meanwhile, debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, then moved with the Dodgers to L.A. in 1958. He had his greatest years from 1963–1966, a four-year stretch that remains arguably the greatest of any pitcher in baseball history. As far as I have been able to determine, the first Koufax bobblehead was issued in 1967, commemorating his career after his retirement at the end of the 1966 season.
It is difficult, then, based on cultural indicators in the film, to place Grandpa as representative of any culture earlier than the 1950s, though the 1950 are often viewed nostalgically as a time before things started to go wrong in American cultural history. In this case, though, it seems more useful to think of him, not as a representative of a time before the 1960s so much as a figure of an alternative to commodity culture even during its heyday, especially as The Lost Boys does not seem to be informed by any legitimately coherent model of history. Grandpa’s vintage 1957 automobile, then, does not make him a figure of the 1950s so much as it reminds us that he hasn’t bought a new car in thirty years. Most of the trappings of contemporary consumer culture are missing from his rural home as well—which is why the home creeps out Sam when he first arrives. Indeed, Grandpa makes it clear that he likes to avoid going into town as much as possible, while much of his lifestyle actually seems like an authentic version of the 1960s hippie lifestyle, which he has stuck to, as opposed to selling out like most the hippies from the 1960s, including his daughter.
This reading might suggest that The Lost Boys is informed by clear oppositions in which the alternative culture represented by Grandpa is held up as a preferred Other to the debased and commodified culture of the 1960s and beyond. Frank’s analysis, however, points to a fundamental contradiction at the heart of The Lost Boys itself, a contradiction that complicates this neat structure. Within the plot of the film, the eccentric ways of Grandpa or even the horror comics of the Frog Brothers seem to stand as representatives of alternative cultures that eventually triumph over the flashier rock-n-roll culture of the vampires, perhaps because (or so the film seems to want us to believe) these alternative cultures are somehow more organic to the life worlds of individuals as opposed to the corporate nature of the more commercial popular culture of the 1980s. Ironically, though, The Lost Boys itself is itself less like the horror comics represented by the Frogs and more like the rock-n-roll, MTV-oriented consumer subculture of the vampires.
Part of what is at stake here is central to the vampire genre itself—and, by extension, to much of horror as a whole. In order to function effectively as an entertainment, the vampires in the stories must themselves become objects of some sort of audience attention, whether they be alluring and seductive or fascinatingly repulsive. As Christopher Craft notes of vampire stories (especially the foundational Dracula), such stories must present us with a monster who can entertain us long enough to let the narrative run its course, before it is finally defeated in the end. However, as Latham notes (citing Craft’s argument), in The Lost Boys “the monster is consumer youth culture generally, and thus its expulsion is more a matter of bad faith than in other vampire texts, since its genuine extirpation would require that the film destroy itself” (64).
Latham goes on to note that some of the contradictions within The Lost Boys can be attributed to the contradictory nature of consumerism itself. Just as Max is unsure that he can completely control his youthful vampire minions, so too are the corporate forces that encourage a spirit of youthful rebelliousness in danger of triggering a genuine youth rebellion. Latham, though with qualifications, sees the Santa Carla boardwalk as a potential image of carnivalesque rebellion, much in the mode of the carnivaleque energies in the work of the French writer François Rabelais, which Bakhtin sees as a challenge to the stern authority of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe. Then again, we should remember that, however raucous, the medieval carnival was actually sponsored and endorsed by the Church as a way of allowing its constituents to blow off steam, thus using up potentially subversive energies and actually solidifying the power of the Church. As Terry Eagleton pessimistically puts it, “Carnival, after all, is a licensed affair in every sense, a permissible rupture of hegemony, a contained popular blow-off as disturbing and relatively ineffectual as a revolutionary work of art” (148, his emphasis).
In the case of The Lost Boys (or of consumer pop culture in general), the situation is complicated by the fact that, by the 1980s, carnivalesque imagery—and rebellion itself (especially of a personal kind that does not involve a genuine political revolution, with actual coherent ideological backing)—had been thoroughly commodified. One thinks here of specimens such as the 1983 song “Rebel Yell,” by British faux punker Billy Idol, who might have served as a fashion model for the young vampires of The Lost Boys, especially David. But this song, while parading rebelliousness, has no actual political content. It simply attempts to declare that rebelliousness is cool. Indeed, since the 1950s, rebelliousness had become a marketable image of coolness in general, and rebellion in American film—with actors such as Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones (1953) and James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) serving in icons—had become a principal form of coolness. By the 1980s, of course, this tendency was old enough to be mocked in films such as Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), but it nevertheless still had considerable traction.
Nina Auerbach, in fact, sees The Lost Boys as a deeply conservative film that ultimately endorses the 1980s ethos of Reaganism. For her, Lucy falls prey to the charms of Max due to her “careless sexuality,” suggesting the pitfalls of single motherhood and the need for strong father figures to head families (168). In addition, for Auerbach the vampires are depicted essentially as drug addicts, becoming “casualties of the Republicans’ war against drugs: they are so burned out that the antidrug message of official culture seems to have stifled all transformations or transforming perceptions” (167). We should also remember that Grandpa, however, countercultural he might appear, is the only true father among the film’s characters, so that his victory over Max can be taken as a conservative restoration of the patriarchal order.
However, if The Lost Boys is, in fact, a conservative film, this conservatism might be inadvertent, a sign more of the times than of the film’s intent. Granted, the film’s critique of 1980s consumer culture essentially collapses beneath its own weight, but then The Lost Boys never asks to be taken seriously as a political statement. If the film itself verges on being all style and no substance, that is simply because that’s the sort of film it is, not because it fails to achieve its goals. Almost all of the action of the film takes place in a context that is knowingly constructed from the long legacy of vampire stories, though this legacy is never taken quite seriously, giving the entire film a certain ironic tone. In many ways, The Lost Boys is not so much a legitimate vampire story as it is a postmodern pastiche of a vampire story, a work that is constructed by liberally borrowing elements of earlier stories but stripping them out of their original context and injecting them with a strong dose of “coolness.” The film is an example, in short, of the very form of pastiche that Jameson identifies as a principal compositional strategy of postmodernist art, which is for him a kind of “blank” parody that consciously adopts the styles of various predecessors without any intention of commenting on those predecessors or revising our assessment of them (Postmodernism 17).
Identifying The Lost Boys as a paradigmatic work of postmodernist art helps to explain why it cannot effectively escape the consumerist culture it seems to want to criticize. For Jameson, one of the key consequences of postmodernism is the reduction of essentially everything, including works of culture to the status of commodities. So, ultimately, no postmodernist work can escape the ideological field of capitalism or find a place outside that field from which to launch an effective critique. The Lost Boys at least acknowledges that there is a problem, even if it is unable to provide viable solutions—partly because it such a glossy, commercial work, so clearly a commodity in itself. On the other hand, see below, in the discussions of It Follows and Sorry to Bother You, for discussions of the ways in which those films potentially point toward a way out of the postmodern morass.
SCREAM (1996): DIRECTOR WES CRAVEN
Scream and its sequels have probably been mentioned more in critical discussions of the postmodern horror film than have any other films or franchises. And rightfully so—Scream I draws extensively on tropes from previous slasher films (as all slasher films tend to do), but Scream does itin a way that is so overtly self-conscious of its replication of material from past slasher-film that it is clearly operating in a mode of postmodern pastiche. Scream has an impressive pedigree as a slasher film, given the credentials of its director. By the time he directed Scream in 1996, Wes Craven had established himself as one of the leading figures in the genre of horror film, in a career that saw him become the leading creative force behind films ranging from the gritty and violent The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), to the often hilarious, but politically-charged The People Under the Stairs (1991), to the comic Eddie Murphy vampire vehicle Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). But Craven, a former high-school and college English teacher, was best known as the writer and director of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which inspired one of the major slasher-film franchises of subsequent years. Craven himself had dismantled the conventions of that franchise in his own postmodern pastiche of it with New Nightmare in 1994. But it was with Scream that he took the slasher film into the realm of pure postmodern self-consciousness.
The opening scene of Scream is one of the most famous in the history of horror film. It begins as a phone rings, to be answered by young Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore). It appears to be a wrong number, but the caller keeps calling back, trying to convince Casey to talk to him. She initially blows him off, but eventually begins to be drawn into conversation, confiding to him that she is making popcorn in preparation for watching a scary movie. Halloween is her favorite scary movie, she reveals, then guesses, when prompted, that the caller probably likes Nightmare on Elm Street. He agrees that’s a great movie, but she suggests (in an amusing nod to Craven’s initiation of the series) that only the first one in the franchise was. The conversation then takes an ominous turn when the caller reveals that he is looking at Casey as they talk. Frantically, she hangs up and locks all her doors. The caller becomes more aggressive and abusive, threatening to gut her like a fish. After he suggests the he would like to see what her insides look like, a now-frantic Casey warns the caller that her big, football-player boyfriend is due to arrive at any second. Then the caller reveals that he knows her boyfriend’s name and suggests that she turn on the patio lights. Predictably, a bloodied Steve is out on the patio, tied to a chair, his mouth taped shut. The caller insists that he wants to play a game, with Steve’s life hanging on the outcome. He challenges her to name the killer in Halloween, which should be easy, given that she has already identified that film as her favorite. Rattled, though, she can’t think—foreshadowing the way in which survival for characters in this film will depend both on keeping cool and on their knowledge of slasher films. Finally, she answers, “Michael,” correctly indicating Michael Myers, the slasher in Halloween. Now the caller asks her to name the killer in Friday the 13th, thus introducing the third of the major 1980s slasher franchises. When she gives the obvious answer, “Jason,” the caller reminds her that the real killer in the original Friday the 13th was actually Jason’s mother, not Jason himself. As a result of her wrong answer, Steve is killed. The caller breaks into the house; Casey grabs a kitchen knife and slips outside. Hope flares briefly, as Casey’s parents arrive home, but the killer, wearing the now-iconic Ghostface mask for which the Scream series is so well remembered, finishes off Casey before her parents can intervene. They find their bloodied daughter hanging from a tree out in the yard.
This initial scene serves as an excellent preview of the entire movie, indicating that this will be a bloody slasher film and introducing the vicious Ghostface slasher. It is also encapsulates the entire slasher subgenre—perhaps a bit too neatly and self-consciously—as will the entire film. The quiz concerning previous slasher films that is crucial to this scene already suggests this self-consciousness, while also suggesting that a knowledge of earlier slasher films will be crucial to the proper enjoyment of this one. On the other hand, this early scene alerts us that there might be some surprises in store and that genre conventions might in some cases be subverted. For example, if it was surprising that Marion Crane, seemingly the main character, was killed only a third of the way through Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), how unconventional is it for the character played by Drew Barrymore, the biggest star who appears in Scream, to be, not the Final Girl, but the first, killed in the film’s very first scene?
This aspect of the film, though it works very well, was the product more of necessity than of invention—Barrymore had originally been slated to play the film’s role, but then agreed to play this single scene after other commitments forced her to withdraw from the lead. That role instead went to young Canadian actress Neve Campbell, at that time a virtual newcomer to film, known primarily for her role in the television series Party of Five, beginning in 1994. Campbell plays innocent young Sidney Prescott, who will turn out to be the central target of the film’s highly misogynistic slashers, who (we eventually learn) murdered Sidney’s mother exactly one year earlier, an event from which Sidney has still not completely recovered.
In any case, the opening sequence sets the stage for numerous other scenes in which the film’s high-school-student characters engage in hyperconscious, self-reflexive, slasher-movie-oriented discussions and observations. Thus, Todd Tietchen sees Scream and Scream 2 as being among a series of films of the late 1990s that tend to portray their killer-figures as “semiotically informed briocoleurs who follow the outline of a pre-established narrative manifest in a shared literature of images and afterward process their artistically arranged corpses through another layer of reportorial and/or electronic desire” (99). He notes how the killers in Scream “follow pre-established ‘rules’ to slasher-style murder as if painting by numbers and re-appropriating the stuff of previous horror films for creative inspiration” (101).
Key to this aspect of the film is video store clerk and film buff Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), who is the film’s true expert on slasher films and who serves as a sort of chorus reminding his fellow teens (and viewers of the film) of the conventions of the subgenre as the action proceeds. Not that they need much guidance (the film assumes almost universal familiarity with slasher-film conventions among young people who might be watching Scream), but Meeks’ commentary does make an important contribution to the film’s sense of self-consciousness about participating in the slasher subgenre—as well as providing an important indicator of the collapse of the boundary between physical reality and representations of that reality that is central to this film and that many observers have seen as a central element of the postmodern condition. Here, the boundary between the “real” world within the film and the fictional world of slasher films experienced by characters within the film is almost completely dissolved. At one point, Sidney complains to her boyfriend Billy Loomis (played by Skeet Ulrich, a sort of poor man’s Johnny Depp) about all the references to movies in the film, noting that what they are experiencing is not a movie. Billy disagrees, arguing that, in the contemporary world, “It’s all one great big movie,” he says. “Only you can’t pick your genre.” Then again, he has already picked a genre and has devoted himself to acting out tropes from slasher films. Sidney, despite her complaints about treating real life as if it were a movie, choosing a genre as well, announcing to Billy her availability for sex by suggesting that she would like for her life to be a “good porno.” Apparently, these teens can only communicate by referring to movies.
One key element of the postmodern collapse of the boundary between reality and representation is the news media, whose modern technologies have made it possible to report events almost as soon as they occur, often converting those events into commodities to be marketed to audiences of consumers, eager for information. Meanwhile, there has been much discussion of the ways in which the contemporary media report events, converting them into entertainment spectacles, perhaps distorting the truth along the way. This aspect of postmodernism is directly thematized throughout the Scream franchise by directly involving local television reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) in the story. Gale has just written a book on the rape and murder of Sidney’s mother in which she argues, rightly as it turns out, that the convicted and soon-to-be-executed perpetrator, Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), is actually innocent. Thus, Gale comes to Woodsboro High to cover the killings with a vested interest in sensationalizing the case in order to stimulate sales of her soon-to-be-published book. Indeed, Gale is depicted as self-serving and opportunistic throughout, though she is not an entirely negative character (and indeed saves Sidney in the end).
Gale, meanwhile, is only perhaps a decade older than the teen characters of the film, so she is not quite a member of the older generation, which might account for the fact that she has not been completely divorced from the ability to act effectively in a film in which the older generation does not come off well. Her relative youth might also help to account for the fact that she becomes somewhat distracted from her journalistic duties by her clear attraction to the muscular (but boyish and not-so-macho) local deputy sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette). Dewey and Gale, in fact, sometimes both seem to forget about the situation within which they are embroiled, as their hormones send them skittering off together into the bushes. (Arquette and Cox, in fact, had enough on-screen chemistry that they were married in real-life a few years later, further obscuring the boundary between fiction and reality in the world of Scream.)
The film’s teen characters interpret the events that unfold in their lives through the optic of the slasher film throughout Scream. However, the film’s engagement with the slasher subgenre reaches its peak in one key sequence in which the teens gather for a wild party at the house of student Stu Macher (who turns out to be one of the slashers and who is played by Matthew Lillard, who, ironically, had just come off a role in the 1995 film Hackers, in which he played a hacker nicknamed “Cereal Killer.”). The party is being held to celebrate the fact that classes at the local high school have been suspended in light of the recent killings in the seemingly quiet California town of Woodsboro. The party is all sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, just young people being young people. Tellingly, though, one of the central entertainments at this party involves a group viewing of the film Halloween, which is thus identified as a key element of the party-goers’ group cultureand as a crucial contributor to their shared cultural identity.
Randy serves as a sort of host and commentator for the showing of the film, using his superior knowledge of film trivia to make sure all in the audience are fully prepared to view the film properly. For example, he at one point explains the rules for surviving a slasher film as follows: “Number One: You can never have sex. Big no-no. Sex equals death, okay? Number Two: You can never drink or do drugs. No, the sin factor. It’s a sin; it’s an extension of Number One. And Number Three: never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, say, ‘I’ll be right back.’” Stu then immediately leaves the room, jokingly saying that he will be right back.
But it is, of course, the invocation against having sex that seems central to these rules, especially, given the notorious role played by sex in slasher films—where anyone having sex is likely to be killed soon afterward, and where the surviving Final Girl is likely to be a virgin. Predictably, much of the discussion of Halloween that occurs in this scene has to do with sex. One scene that is a particular hit is the one in which Lynda van der Klok (P. J. Soles) bares her impressive breasts (shortly before being killed)—though the breasts are not actually seen in Scream, which, in fact, displays no bare breasts at all.When one of the onlookers (apparently not familiar with the film) asks when Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis is going to bare her breasts, Randy explains that she cannot do so, because her role in the film is to be the surviving good-girl virgin. Thus, he notes that, ironically, she will not bare her breasts on film until she graduates from slasher films and “goes legit” in the 1983 Eddie Murphy-Dan Ackroyd comedy Trading Places—providing a reminder that the sorts of material for which slasher films are often criticized can be found in more mainstream fare as well.
Plot twists are typical of the slasher film as a subgenre, and such twists abound in Scream, as one would expect. On the other hand, many of the surprises in Scream occur when it deviates from the script in moments that are made all the more surprising because the film generally sticks to the script so closely. For example, in the very next scene after the prologue with Barrymore, we see Sidney alone in her bedroom, when she suddenly hears a scratching at the window. She goes to the window and opens it, when suddenly something jumps at her. Never fear, though, this time it’s just Billy. Or, actually, maybe we should fear, because Billy seems a bit sketchy as he complains to the virginal Sidney about the lack of sex in their relationship. After all, most viewers will know as well as Randy that virginity is often a key to survival in the slasher film.
This topic is re-introduced at the party: while the other teens watch and discuss Halloween downstairs, Sidney is in a bedroom upstairs with Billy, announcing to him that she is now ready to lose her virginity at last, which seems ominous, given the discussion going on below. Meanwhile, as the viewers downstairs eagerly await the “obligatory tit shot,” Sidney begins to remove her bra, leading to the expectation that her breasts are about to be exposed as well. However, just as the obligatory slasher-film baring of Sidney’s breasts seems to be approaching, Billy steps in front of the camera, blocking the view (and the cliché)—and reminding us of his earlier charge that Sidney is a “tease.” In this case, though, she’s teasing only the audience: she and Billy do have sex (though the sex is not actually shown, continuing the tendency to Scream to be rather demure in its representation of sex). This implied act (which neither Sidney nor Billy seems to have found all that fulfilling) of course shifts Sidney’s status within the conventions of the slasher film, inevitably making us wonder if she is about to be killed.
And she almost is—thanks to the efforts of Billy and Stu, who turn out in this film, in another twist, to be dual serial killers working together. Actually, Billy has been suspected before in the film (and even taken into custody by the police), while slasher-film fans will not be all that surprised to learn that he is a killer. After all, “Billy” had been the first name of the killer in several earlier slasher films (including Black Christmas), and “Loomis” is the last name of the psychiatrist who stalks Michael Myers in Halloween, while Dr. Loomis in turn seems to have borrowed his name from Marion Crane’s lover in Psycho. Here, though, Scream adds an extra twist by revealing in the film’s final extended action sequence the tag-time slashing being carried out by Billy and Stu. The killers, meanwhile, get their chance at Sidney, who has been their main target all along, when the other teens rush off to the high school, having received the news that Principal Himbry has been gutted by the slasher and is now hanging from the goalpost on the school’s football field. In what is probably the film’s most extreme depiction of the callousness of its teen characters, the teens rush back to the high school because they hope to get a look at the ravaged body of their despised nemesis before the police take it down, leaving Sidney behind to be menaced by the slashers.
The fact that the high schoolers regard Himbry’s death as a cause for celebration should perhaps come as no surprise, given the callousness they have already demonstrate by holding this school’s-out party in the first place (which little sign of concern for the recent victims or their families). In fact, for a film that was clearly designed to appeal primarily to a young audience, this one does, at first glance, appear to depict contemporary youth in an extremely negative light—as amoral, directionless, and interested only in orgasm, intoxication, and watching slasher movies. And, of course, given the fact that slasher films seem to be a crucial part of their cultural upbringing, the implication would seem to be that such films have had a seriously negative impact. However, there is clearly a note of irony in this depiction, with a knowing wink to youth audiences, granting them the sophistication to understand that what we are seeing is not so much a critique of the young people of 1996 as it is the stereotypical view of those young people held by their elders. In the meantime, this film also grants them the sophistication not to be negatively influenced by slasher movies, so that the depiction of that negative influence throughout this film (after all, this culture seems to have contributed to making two of them literal slashers) would seem to be a mockery of the fears of the older generation about the impact of these movies on their children.
Scream, in fact, includes a number of such knowing winks to its intended youthful audience, paying homage not just to the slasher-film subgenre but to the savvy of slasher-film audiences. Not only does the film assume that its audience will have basic familiarity with the subgenre, but it also includes a number of in-jokes that seem designed to establish a sort of bond with the audience. For example, at one point Sidney is accused by her friend Tatum Riley (Dewey’s younger sister, played by Rose McGowan) of “starting to sound like some Wes Carpenter flick” (conflating Wes Craven with Halloween director John Carpenter). This could, of course, we interpreted as a slip on Tatum’s part, but it is more likely that she is being ironic—and in a way that is highly appropriate, given that she is a character in a Wes Craven film that was inspired by a John Carpenter film. Indeed, I read this reference as a nudge to the film’s viewers, who are likely to understand perfectly well the implications of the “Wes Carpenter” line. This is a film made by slasher-film fans for slasher-film fans, which essentially places both the makers of the film and its audience within the same cultural community.
In conjunction with its ironic depiction of the negative influence of slasher films on young people, Scream also includes depictions of the older generation that suggest that these adults are not doing much better, even without the influence of constant viewing of slasher film. Parents, for example, seem to be largely absent, too busy with their own lives (including extramarital affairs) to have much time actually to supervise their children. When parents do appear at all, they are largely ineffectual—as when Sidney’s father Neil Prescott (Lawrence Hecht) spends most of his screen time bound and gagged, helpless to defend his daughter against the onslaught of the slashers. Similarly, Dewey, the film’s principal law-enforcement figure, is depicted as well-meaning but dim-witted—and as no match for the film’s ruthless slashers.
In many ways, the most important figure of older-generation authority in the film is Principal Himbry himself (Henry Winkler). Himbry is depicted as a pompous, domineering sort who is a bit too bullying, vulgar, and aggressive in his dealings with students—so much so that the film’s production was booted out of the real Santa Rosa High School, where they had originally been granted permission to film. The casting of Winkler (who does not actually appear in the film’s on-screen credits) in this role was in itself a stroke of genius. Winkler will be forever be remembered in American popular culture as the leather-jacketed, supercool, and hyper-rebellious Arthur Fonzarelli in the television series Happy Days (which ran from 1974 to 1984, but is set roughly twenty years earlier). The casting of “The Fonze” just one generation later as a high-school principal completely divorced from the cares and concerns of his students thus suggests the way in which youthful rebelliousness tends to be squelched in the interest of “maturity” and “responsibility” as individuals grow older in American society.
In Himbry’s key scene, he angrily (and not entirely without justification) excoriates (and expels) two students who had been going around Woodsboro High jokingly dressed in Ghostface costumes. He destroys one of the costumes and confiscates the other, sending the boys packing. A few minutes later, though, he dons one of the costumes himself and confronts himself in the mirror in his office, trying to act menacing. The implication is clear: Himbry, as an authority figure, is driven by a desire for domination and power of a kind not all that different from the pathological drive that motivates the film’s slashers. That Himbry then immediately becomes spooked by the idea that he himself is being stalked suggests that he might not be so tough after all; that he is then actually killed by Ghostface suggests his inability to protect the young people under his authority from such a force—while the fact that the killing is greeted so gleefully by the teens within the film (as they rush off to try to get a look at Himbry’s mutilated body) can be taken as an ironic nod to charges that slasher-films tend to desensitize their youthful audiences to violence, or even to teach them to regard violent murder as a source of amusement.
Meanwhile, back at the Macher house the two slashers mount their assault on Sidney, along the way killing Gale’s cameraman and shooting (but not killing) Randy, who survives thanks to his virginity. When Randy announces that Stu has gone mad, Billy replies that “we all go a little mad sometimes,” and then shoots him. Then he explains to Sidney: “Anthony Perkins, Psycho,” apparently fearing that she (and possibly the audience of Scream) might be too young to catch the reference. Gale, Dewey, and Mr. Prescott suffer considerable abuse as well, though in some ways the highlight of this last sequence is the violence that is visited upon the slashers themselves, who are bashed and banged about the screen like pinballs—or perhaps like characters in a Looney Toons cartoon. The reference here, of course, is to the notorious durability of characters such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, who are able to take an amazing amount of punishment without being permanently destroyed.
Scream’s slashers, however, are just psychotic teenagers, not supernaturally resilient slashers, and so they are eventually killed. Stu is hoist on his own petard as Sidney dumps an old-style CRT television set (with Halloween still playing on it) on his head, electrocuting him; Billy is killed when Gale shoots him just as he is about to plunge a knife into Sidney. Thus, while they have been at odds throughout the film (because of Gale’s reporting on the death of Sidney’s mother), Gale and Sidney become allies in the end in what might be interpreted as a moment of feminine solidarity. Then Gale proves her own resilience by grabbing a mike and doing a live report from the scene, thus proving that she has not entirely changed her stripes by using the whole bloody debacle as another career opportunity.
In terms of gender-based solidarity, however, the most charged element of Scream would appear to be the relationship between the two male slashers, who work surprisingly closely together, including a moment when Stu and Billy stab each other so that they can both claim to be victims of Ghostface. Among other things, these stabbings don’t seem to slow down the slashers very much, suggesting that they have at least some of the unstoppability that is associated with more traditional slashers. What is most important about this scene of mutual penetration is how clearly it is coded as home-erotic—almost to the point of being ridiculously over-obvious. Thus, while both slashers have girlfriends, they are both also pathologically misogynistic: Stu ultimately kills his girlfriend, and Billy tries very hard to kill his—after the two had earlier teamed up to kill Sidney’s mother because they so strongly disapproved of her heterosexual encounters (including with Billy’s father). Moreover, while Billy whines about Sidney’s sexual reticence, he doesn’t seem nearly as concerned about it as one might expect of a teenage boy, especially one who is not exactly the understanding type. And the towering Stu’s relationship with the diminutive Tatum seems to consist largely of tossing her around like a ragdoll, which one could very easily see as a transparently-coded expression of hostility.
Arguing that the American films of the 1980s were dominated by “cartoons of hyper-masculinity”—embodied in such stars as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger—David Greven sees Scream as emblematic of a turn toward cinematic expressions of masculinity that are aware of queerness as an option, expressions that are themselves symptoms of a growing awareness of gay masculinity in American society as a whole (80). Further, Greven argues that Scream anticipates the later development of such forms as the “bromance” in its portrayal of the relationship between the two slashers. The portrayal of the slashers as bound (consciously or not) by a home-erotic attraction is not, however, a positive dimension of the film for Greven. Psychotic killers do not exactly serve as positive figures, after all. Indeed, Greven concludes that “For all of its self-aware, deconstructive wit, Scream in no way updates, corrects, revises, or challenges the homophobic and, especially, misogynistic aspects of the classic slasher genre (its animus toward queer male figures, on the one hand, and female sexual agency, on the other hand)” (82).
Greven argues that, far from breaking new ground in the positive representation of gay men, Scream actually replicates a rather old tradition of popular fascination with pairs of gay male lovers as potentially sinister that goes back at least to the notorious case of Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr., and Richard Albert Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago who, in 1924, kidnapped and murdered fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. The murder was apparently conceived at least partly as a demonstration of the superior intellects of the killers, which would presumably enable them to get away with the crime. Both were convicted, however, though their defense by famed attorney Clarence Darrow helped them to avoid the death penalty. Part of the reason why the Leopold and Loeb case gained so much notoriety was the fact that the two were apparently gay lovers, so that their crime verified popular suspicions that homosexuals were dangerous. The case has influenced a number of works of American culture, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope.
I would argue, however, that Greven’s criticism of the film as propagating long-standing anti-gay stereotypes does not properly appreciate the ironic and metatextual nature of Scream. Thus, just as the film repeats stereotypes about young people and about the negative influence of slasher films on the young in order to mock those stereotypes, rather than to endorse them, so, too, could one argue that the film codes its two slasher figures as gay in order to critique the tendency to suspect gay people of having a variety of pathological tendencies. Throughout its runtime, Scream repeatedly congratulates its audience on their sophistication and on their ability to see past the surface implications of film tropes. For example, the film clearly wants to point out that of course having sex will not immediately lead to one’s being murdered by a serial killer, so that of course slasher films are not intended to warn teens against having sex, because teens are far too smart to fall for such a simple ploy. In the same way, I would argue that, Scream just as clearly does not intend to make the equally ludicrous suggestion that gay people are dangerous psychotics prone to serial murder, despite the fact that it obviously indicates that Stu and Billy are at least in some sense gay.
Scream, in the final analysis, does not, in fact, intend to deliver any real messages to its young audience at all—other than perhaps an invitation to think of themselves as members of the in-group of people who really get slasher films (and are too wise to be dissuaded by popular critiques of horror films). To an extent, this lack of a message is simply an example of the lack of any real political force in postmodernist culture as a whole, as described by Jameson. In this case, though, the lack of a message would appear to be born from the conviction that young people simply won’t listen to such messages, partly because of a long history in which the messages delivered to them have been informed not by a desire to help them, but by a desire to control them. On the other hand, this particular youth-oriented perception is a very postmodern one as well, informed by a sense of belatedness that informs postmodern culture in general, by a feeling that we’ve seen and heard it all before, making it impossible to deliver any sort of message without a sense of irony so strong that the message already undermines itself.
DRAG ME TO HELL (2009): DIRECTOR SAM RAIMI
After the conclusion of the original Evil Dead trilogy with Army of Darkness in 1992, Sam Raimi was propelled to A-list status with the brilliant neo-noir film A Simple Plan (1998) and with the smash box-office success of his Spider-Man trilogy (2002–2007). He then returned to horror in 2009 with Drag Me to Hell, a film that shows considerable evolution in Raimi’s vision as a director relative to the Evil Dead films, though one that continues to show much of the same consciousness of genre conventions and willingness to push those conventions to the edge of ridiculousness and beyond. Indeed, in many ways, Drag Me to Hell is more representative of postmodernism than are the Evil Dead films, perhaps because those earlier films were at the forefront of the overtly postmodern turn in horror film, while Drag Me to Hell appeared with thirty years of postmodern horror as background. Drag Me to Hell, which features stock horror-film motifs such as a demon and a gyspy curse, is also of interest in the extent and sophistication with which it addresses contemporary economic issues, suggesting the way in which economic issues had penetrated the popular consciousness as never before, a phenomenon that is only to be expected given the near-catastrophic credit crisis of 2008, but also given the general absorption of all aspects of daily life into capitalist economic maneuvers in the era of late capitalism.
Drag Me to Hell begins with a prologue set in Pasadena in 1969 that introduces its major horror-film motifs. A small Mexican boy has been cursed after stealing a silver necklace from some gypsies. His parents rush him to a young medium, Shaun San Dena (Flor de Maria Chahua), who attempts to conduct a ritual to remove the curse, but invisible demonic forces attack and the boy is literally dragged through the floor and down to hell. The woman vows that she will meet those forces again—which she, in fact, will do later in the film.
After the opening credits, the film introduces Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a young woman attempting to make her way in current-day Los Angeles, where she works as a loan officer at a bank, hoping for a promotion to the bank’s vacant assistant manager position. Clearly ambitious, she spends her time doing things like practicing her diction to try to remove traces of her rural background. In this sense, she is a stock film character (the innocent country girl who comes to the corrupt city with ambitious dreams of making it big), a fact that should alert us to the extent to which Drag Me to Hell, as a postmodern cultural artifact, is at least as much about other films as it is about anything in the “real” world. Of course, her dreams will meet with serious obstacles, the least of which is the fact that, in order to get the promotion, she must surpass the new guy, Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee)—who is “very aggressive” as a loan officer, but who is also male and very good at kissing up to their boss, Mr. Jacks (David Paymer). Christine’s boyfriend Clay Dalton (Justin Long) has just begun a new position as an assistant professor of psychology at a local university, though he doesn’t exactly seem like an intellectual heavyweight. Clay’s rich, snooty parents—more stock characters from the filmic past—don’t think Christine (whom they think of as “the girl from the farm”) is good enough for him.
With this basic scenario in place, this film might have developed in the direction of screwball comedy, but instead it moves in the direction of horror as Mrs. Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver)—an old gypsy woman with a bad cough, a creepy eye, and really grimy fingernails—comes to the bank in an attempt to avert the repossession of her property. Christine appeals to Mr. Jacks to give Mrs. Ganush an extension, given her age and medical problems; he explains that the woman has already had two extensions and that the bank will make considerable profits from the repossession, but he leaves the decision up to Christine. Christine wants to help the woman, but she clearly regards the situation as a test to see if she has the toughness needed to handle the assistant manager position. Mrs. Ganush literally goes down on her knees to beg Christine to help prevent the loss of her home, where she has lived for thirty years, but Christine stands firm and calls security to remove the woman. Stunned, Mrs. Ganush starts to walk away, mumbling that Christine has shamed her. Then she turns violent and has to be dragged out by the security officers. Mr. Jacks compliments Christine on the way she handled the situation, clearly hinting that she might have helped her chances at the promotion.
In the light of the financial crisis of 2008 (which caused over three million people to lose their homes), the implications of this scene (in a film released in 2009) could not be more clear: banks are heartless institutions interested only in their own profits and willing to wreck the lives of innocent people in order to drive those profits higher. Those innocent people, in this case, include not only Mrs. Ganush, but Christine, a basically good (but extremely ambitious) person who feels forced to deal ungenerously with Mrs. Ganush in order to protect her own career. Banks, the film implies, turn their customers into victims and their employees into soulless mercenaries. In the meantime, Christine has initiated that the process that threatens to cause her literally to lose her soul by bringing down upon herself the gypsy curse that drives the remainder of the film.
The bulk of Drag Me to Hell deals explicitly with this curse and Christine’s attempt (with the help of Clay) to escape it. However, this opening scene in the bank is not a throwaway. It provides crucial context that underlies the meaning of the graphic (sometimes excessively so) scenes of horror that dominate the film. Annie McClanahan, in a sweeping study of the impact of the 2008 credit crisis on American culture, sees Drag Me to Hell as a prime example of the ways in which American culture has responded to the growing role played by debt in our contemporary economic life, a phenomenon that makes that life increasingly precarious—sometimes making a horror film such as Drag Me to Hell the only appropriate mode for representing the American economy in the twenty-first century.
McClanahan sees Drag Me to Hell as one of several recent horror films “that bring together fear, foreclosure, and financialized credit (143). For McClanahan, these films together “register the transformation of economic uncertainty into speculative risk and refigure this risk as precarity, dispossession, and fear” (144). Later, she describes Drag Me to Hell, in particular, as “a remarkably complex meditation on the link between risky investment and the insecurity of daily life caused by the conversion of homes into collateral for securitized credit” (163). In short, the film responds to recent changes in the way home mortgages are handled by the economic system, changes that convert such mortgages into “securities,” which can then be bought and sold freely, increasing their liquidity but also increasing the incentive of mortgage lenders to make risky loans, which will then eventually be foreclosed. In short, even family homes become pure commodities, expelled from the realm of use value and into the realm of pure exchange value, home turf of late capitalism.
The fact that it attempts to cope with such serious issues might account for the fact that, in general, Drag Me to Hell is far more restrained and less comically outrageous than is the Evil Dead series. However, there is at least one scene that might have been right at home in that earlier series—and one that is the comic highlight of Drag Me to Hell (if “highlight” is quite the right word). At the end of the workday, Christine goes to her car in the parking garage of the bank building. There, she is confronted by Mrs. Ganush, who seems to materialize by magic in the backseat of Christine’s car. Mrs. Ganush attacks her, leading to a cartoonishly violent fight scene in which the old woman proves able to take a surprising amount of punishment before finally removing a button from the sleeve of Christine’s jacket and placing a curse on it (in Hungarian). She then returns the button to an uncomprehending Christine, telling her, “Soon it will be you who comes begging to me.” Mrs. Ganush then disappears; a stunned Christine recovers full consciousness and finds herself alone in the garage—except for an ominous fly that buzzes around her (as a fly had buzzed around the doomed boy in the prologue).
The cursed button bears an unmistakable resemblance to a coin, and Mrs. Ganush’s placement of the button in Christine’s hand is clearly a sort of economic exchange, transferring the power of the curse to the younger woman and reminding us of the seemingly magical ability of money to transfer economic power from one person to another. Meanwhile, this button directly echoes the rare coin we have seen Christine giving Clay earlier, having plucked it out of circulation at the bank: a nearly mint 1929 “standing Liberty” quarter. This quarter, which was struck by the U.S. mint from 1916 to 1930, is greeted by Clay, an amateur film collector, with much delight—and with amazement that it could be found in open circulation at a contemporary bank. This moment captures some of the perceived magic (and complete lack of use value) of money in a capitalist economy. At the bank, this quarter had been worth exactly 25 cents, its face value as a medium of exchange. On the open coin-collectors’ market, the coin would be worth hundreds of dollars. But to Clay it is worth much more. He places it in an envelope for safekeeping and plans to add it to his collection. Removing it from circulation, he reduces its value as currency to zero. Placing it in his collection, he endows it with a fetish value on which one cannot place a monetary value.
Clay tries to comfort Christine by telling her it isn’t her fault that Mrs. Ganush is losing her home. “If you don’t pay your mortgage, you lose your house. What does this woman expect?” he shrugs. For Clay, the idea of losing one’s home of thirty years because of missing mortgage payments is simply common sense. Of course that is what will happen if one doesn’t pay one’s bills. Those are the rules of the bourgeois world in which Clay was brought up—though of course he was brought up in a privileged family for which paying bills was never a problem. Thus, for Clay, not paying one’s mortgage is a matter of irresponsibility and of following the rules of civilized bourgeois conduct, a marker of those who do no live up to the standards Clay has been taught to respect.
Unfortunately, Clay and Christine are about to leave the world of these standards in a spectacular way. Clay humors Christine’s sudden urge to have her fortune read by the “spiritual advisor” Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) when they happen to pass by his shop on the street, but he remains strongly skeptical, even sarcastic, toward the idea. But when the seer attempts to read Christine’s fortune, he sees something so dark and frightening that he leaps away from her and declines to go further, offering to refund their payment. Christine is seriously spooked by the suggestion that she might be cursed, but Clay still dismisses the whole idea as nonsense, curses being almost as inconceivable to him as not paying one’s bills. Later, when a strange force invades her house and slams Christine against the mantel, Clay assumes that she must have been assaulted again by Mrs. Ganush. He continues to seek ordinary solutions to an extraordinary situation and offers to call the police, who are there to defend people like them from people like Mrs. Ganush. That night while they sleep, another ominous fly (or perhaps the same fly) buzzes into their bedroom through a window. It lands on Christine and burrows into her mouth and down her throat, causing her to awake, gasping and coughing. When she lies back down, she finds a zombified version of Mrs. Ganush in the bed beside her instead of Clay; the zombie Ganush leaps atop Alison and vomits a disgusting stream of worms and bugs into her face. Alison awakens to find it had been a dream. More visions and strange occurrences follow, causing Christine to behave abnormally at work, including (in one of the scenes that was slightly cut in the theatrical release) spewing blood from her mouth and nose right onto Mr. Jacks, whose main reaction is to worry if he got any in his mouth.
Hoping to end the trouble, Christine goes to see Mrs. Ganush, only to find that the old woman has died, which is perhaps not surprising given the pounding she took in her battle with Christine in the parking garage. Her family and friends are conducting a wake in the house—which Christine promptly disrupts by tripping over Mrs. Ganush’s casket and sending the body tumbling into the floor, landing on top of Christine. In one of the film’s more impressive gross-out scenes, the toothless body copiously vomits a yellowish liquid into Christine’s mouth, until the onlookers at the wake are finally able to pull it off her. “You deserve everything that is coming to you,” a young relative of Mrs. Ganush ominously tells Christine.
Rham Jas continues to research the situation and concludes that Christine is being plagued by the “Lamia,” a supernatural black goat that is “only summoned by gypsies for their darkest deeds.” The Lamia, he warns Christine, will eventually come to take the soul of the owner of a cursed object that has been taken from and then returned to the intended victim. Christine realizes that he must mean the button and that she is apparently in danger of being dragged to hell. Nevertheless, as a vegetarian and animal lover, she vehemently rejects Rham Jas’s suggestion that she sacrifice a small animal to appease the spirit, though he still gives her a book of instructions for the sacrifice, just in case.
In one of the film’s more shocking turns, Christine, seemingly under assault by the Lamia (in a rather chilling sequence), turns to the extreme solution of sacrificing her small kitten, slashing it repeatedly (and bloodily) with a butcher knife (though the scene of the actual stabbing is cut from the theatrical release), then burying it in the back yard per the instructions in the book. Then, as if that weren’t horrifying enough, Christine is taken immediately afterward by Clay for dinner with his family at their palatial estate. It is the first time she has met the parents, though she is already aware of their condescending attitude.
The evening begins as one would expect: the door is answered by a servant, of course, but Clay’s impeccably dressed parents, Leonard and Trudy (Chelcie Ross and Molly Cheek), then come to the foyer to greet them. Clay and Leonard (whom Clay addresses as “Sir”) go off to get wine, while Christine presents Trudy with a cake she made for the occasion. “A harvest cake,” she explains. The mother doesn’t miss the opportunity: “Is that something you would make on a farm?” she snipes. Christine responds with a bit too much information about farm life; Trudy takes the cake and carries it away as distastefully if she were carrying a plate of excrement. Even the family cat, Hecuba, hisses violently as Christine walks by, almost as if it knows what happened to the kitten.
As they sit down to dinner, Trudy resumes her subtle assault: “I just think that job of a bank teller must be so difficult, with all that counting and repetition. It must get very tedious.” Clearly, Trudy has no idea what it is like to work for a living, but Christine quickly sets her straight by discussing her work as a loan officer. She is currently handling the biggest business loan that her branch has ever handled, a complicated transaction involving a medical supply company that was “looking to expand but didn’t have the liquidity. So I met with their CFO and presented a formula for restructuring some of their long-term debt.” As McClanahan notes in her discussion of the film, Drag Me to Hell employs an unusual amount of technical financial jargon, and this is a good example, though it is not surprising, given Christine’s profession.
What is crucial about this moment, however, is the way it resonates with Clay’s earlier declaration that people who don’t pay their bills should expect to have to deal with the consequences. The whole idea behind “restructuring long-term debt” is to allow corporate entities to operate with greater flexibility precisely by escaping the consequences of not repaying their debts as originally agreed upon. The point is clear: in late capitalist America, poor people like Mrs. Ganush have to pay their bills or else. Corporations, however, are granted the opportunity run up even more debts without repaying the debts they already have, resulting in a sort of legal pyramid scheme that is in danger of eventual collapse—which is what happened during the crisis of 2008.
No one at the table, of course, questions the rectitude of Christine’s financial maneuvers with the medical supply company; Leonard, in fact, seems quite impressed, while Trudy simply changes the subject to inquire about Christine’s mother. Christine explains that her mother is a reclusive alcoholic, whereupon Trudy announces that she is impressed by Christine’s honesty and declares that she much prefers Christine over Clay’s dreadful last girlfriend. Things seem to be taking a turn for the better, if in an awkward way, but then dessert is served: Christine’s harvest cake. The cake seems to be a hit, but then a creepy eyeball appears in the middle of Christine’s slice; Christine stabs the eyeball with her fork, causing blood and other fluids to spurt, then ooze from the cake.
There are, in fact, lots of liquids (especially bodily fluids) spewing and flowing in this film, as if to echo Christine’s professional concern with the liquidity of her clients. In any case, the situation at the dinner party rapidly deteriorates as Christine starts to choke, then coughs up the fly, after which she begins to see and hear things (related to another Lamia attack) that no one else present seems to see or hear. Christine screams at the Lamia and hurls her glass across the room at it. Trudy concludes that Christine is a “sick girl” and urges Clay not to follow as Christine rushes from the house, headed back once again to consult Rham Jas. He warns her that she is running out of time and that he cannot help her himself. He knows someone who might be able to help, but it will be dangerous for her and she will want to be well paid. He suggests that the suspiciously round sum of $10,000 might do the trick, once again suggesting the way in which, in this film, everything is ultimately reduced to the status of an economic transaction.
Christine doesn’t have $10,000, but she does have a job and an impending promotion, so she asks Mr. Jacks for an advance against the increased salary of her new promotion. He informs her that the big deal with the medical supply company has fallen through and that the promotion is going to go to Stu. Christine is clearly cursed. She rushes home to gather up items to hock for cash, then undergoes another Mrs. Ganush attack, which ends when she drops an anvil on the old woman, squashing her head and causing the old woman’s blood, tissue, and eyeballs to be propelled square into Christine’s face. It’s another visual worthy of the maker of the Evil Dead series, though it’s apparently just imaginary: Mrs. Ganush and her tissues suddenly disappear from the scene, leaving no trace.
Christine sinks into despair when she is only able to come up with $3800 for the pawned items: this is a horror film in which (as in the real world of late capitalism) one of the greatest horrors is a lack of cash. Clay comes through for her, though, and pays the $10,000, because he knows it’s important to her, even though he still doesn’t know if he believes it will help. He’s a nice guy—just a little unimaginative. They drive over in his respectable, responsible Prius to the old house, now a bit rundown, where the young boy had been taken in the film’s prologue. We know, of course, from the outcome of the prologue that there is a good chance this won’t end well for Christine. Rham Jas and Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barrazza), now grown old, greet Christine at the house, where the old woman has waited for forty years for another chance to defeat the Lamia, suggesting that this time she will be better prepared. Toward that end, she conducts a séance that, among other things, serves as a vague allegory of globalization. Shaun San Dean seems Hispanic, often shifting into Spanish when she speaks; her “nephew” and assistant, Milos (Kevin Foster), seems Slavic; Rham Jas seems ethnically Indian; and Christine is about as American as one can get. All of these gathered multicultural forces, however, are unable to defeat the Lamia, and the only real result of the séance is the death of Shaun San Dena. The curse on Christine remains intact.
Now, after all this, Rham Jas suggests that, to get rid of the Lamia, Christine just needs to get rid of the cursed button. When dealing with demons, it’s all a matter of possession, after all. So Christine puts the button in an envelope (as Clay had earlier done with the coin), which Rham Jas seals. All she has to do, he tells her, is to give the button to someone else and the curse will be lifted. The only problem is that it will be transferred to whomever receives the button from her. So she picks Stu, whom she has surmised (correctly) to be responsible for the collapse of her big loan deal. She can’t go through with it, though, and decides instead to give the button to Mrs. Ganush, which of course entails digging up the body (in another grisly scene like something from the Evil Dead films) so she can transfer the button personally. Christine barely survives the ordeal, but at least leaves Mrs. Ganush with the envelope (presumably containing the button) stuffed in her mouth.
Things suddenly begin to look up. Stu is outed for sabotaging Christine’s loan deal, and Christine is informed that the promotion is hers, after all. Christine and Clay prepare to depart by train from Union Station for a nice stay, relaxing in the countryside, before she assumes her new job. Then, Clay reveals that he found the envelope with the button in his car—apparently it had inadvertently gotten switched with the envelope bearing the coin, which is what Christine gave to Mrs. Ganush. Christine, just as he realizes, with horror, that she is officially still in possession of the button, is dragged down to hell through the train tracks as the film ends. It’s a sort of O. Henry twist ending, but with a definite dark turn.
This shocking ending is surprisingly lacking in emotional impact, however, and not just because Christine (as an ambitious bank officer willing to hurt others to advance her own career) is a flawed heroine. Indeed, the emotionally flat nature of this ending is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. In what might be taken as an example of the “waning of affect” in postmodern culture, this ending is presented almost like a final joke, with little emotional charge—just as virtually every scene in the film has jokey aspects to it. This ending is also one of the aspects of the film that most clearly marks it as postmodern in another sense, in that it sets Drag Me to Hell distinctly apart from the classical horror film, in which the forces of right typically win out in the end. Meanwhile, “right” typically means white, Western, and relatively affluent in such films. In this case, it is the Lamia, marked as radically Other to the rational society of the capitalist West, who triumphs. But, in a sense, Mrs. Ganush triumphs as well, not only because her curse is successfully carried out, but also because she successfully evades Christine’s attempt to turn the curse back on her.
One would think that Mrs. Ganush, as a poor, old woman who loses her home to a heartless bank, would be an object of great sympathy in the film. However, Mrs. Ganush’s old age, which presumably should make audiences sympathize with her, is actually coded negatively in the film, in which she is repeatedly associated with the disturbing, physical aspects of aging. Items such as her ruined eye, her wet hacking cough, her false teeth (which have a lot of trouble staying in her mouth), and her overgrown blackened fingernails are all abject aspects of old age that make Mrs. Ganush an essentially uncomfortable, even repulsive, reminder of our own mortality.
In addition, as a gypsy, Mrs. Ganush is an ethnic Other who is clearly presented as the antagonist of the fresh-faced Christine, who has the look of an all-American girl. Further, Christine has worked her way up from humble origins, so that she is multiply coded in the film as someone with whom audiences are expected to sympathize, despite her own questionable activities. Gypsies (or, more correctly, the Romani people), of course, are one of the most persecuted groups in world history, having been treated as objects of fear and suspicion for centuries. They were, for example, just as despised by the German Nazis as were the Jews. Gypsies have also long been the objects of negative stereotypes in the popular Western mind; they have long been associated, for example, with a penchant for theft (including the stealing of babies).
In terms of the portrayal of Mrs. Ganush in Drag Me to Hell, what is most relevant is the traditional association of gypsies with a variety of occult practices, including the placing of curses on their enemies. This aspect of gypsy lore is evoked in the film’s prologue, where gypsy magic brings about the doom of a frightened, young boy, immediately suggesting the sinister nature of that magic and preparing audiences of the film to regard gypsy magic as evil. And, of course, horror film audiences have also been alerted to the potential evils of gypsy magic in a number of previous horror films featuring gypsies. It is, after all, a gypsy fortune-teller (played by none other than Bela Lugosi) who initially infects Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) with the curse of lycanthropy in the Universal classic The Wolf Man (1941). However, the predecessor film most relevant to Drag Me to Hell is probably Tom Holland’s Thinner (1996), based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King. This film (which is actually far more sympathetic to its gypsies than is Drag Me to Hell)not only features a gypsy curse placed on the central character in an act of revenge but also includes the motif that the curse can only be lifted by transferring it to someone else.
By overtly basing its curse theme on established stereotypes about the Romani people, while making no effort whatsoever to challenge the validity of those stereotypes, Drag Me to Hell certainly falls short of enlightenment in its representation of ethnic and cultural Others. (And, of course, one might argue that there is clear ageism at work in the film’s depiction of Mrs. Ganush’s geriatric condition as physically gross.) In this sense, the representation of Mrs. Ganush in the film is clearly irresponsible, however playful it might be. It is, after all, clearly inappropriate to have fun at the expense of others, especially others who have already been mistreated by history. One of the most postmodern aspects of Drag Me to Hell, however, is the way that it nudgingly congratulates its audiences on being too sophisticated to be influenced by such stereotypical representations of gypsies and old people, just as Scream assumes that its audiences will not be fooled by stereotypical representations of young slasher-film fans.
Read within the context of postmodern film, the perpetuation of stereotypes in Drag Me to Hell can be seen simply as an example of postmodern pastiche, as a case of borrowing images and motifs from the past without any real consideration of what those images and motifs might have meant in their original context. One cannot really expect Drag Me to Hell effectively to challenge the stereotypes upon which it draws, because it is interested in those stereotypes only as cinematic images, not as representations of the real world. Mrs. Ganush is a movie gypsy and should not be taken as suggestive of the way real gypsies (or real old people) think or behave—just as the lack of emotional charge to Christine’s demise can surely be attributed in part to the fact that she is a movie all-American girl and never quite comes off as representative of a real person. Appropriate or not, this re-use of stock images from the past (including images of human beings)—largely stripped of emotional, historical, or political connotations—is typical of postmodern culture as a whole, as is the final assumption in Drag Me to Hell that its audience will be smart enough to understand what is going on and to get the joke.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012): DIRECTOR DREW GODDARD
The Cabin in the Woods was one of the most eagerly anticipated horror films of the first decades of the twenty-first century, largely because of the rumors that it would be directed by Josh Whedon, who had gained so many genre fans with his Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) television series. As it turned out, Whedon co-wrote and co-produced the film, which was helmed by first-time director Drew Goddard, who had previously worked primarily as a writer, including on Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Cabin in the Woods is an extremely self-conscious metafilm that openly announces its participation in a number of horror film traditions, placing itself, in fact, in a world in which we learn that many of the events depicted in horror films have actually occurred. At the same time, it strives to be an effective horror film in its own right—and even supplies a tongue-in-check backstory that potentially explains not only its own existence, but the existence of all those other horror films as well. At the same time, it provides some telling commentary about the workings of neo-liberal global capitalism that at least begins to move beyond the morass described by Jameson, in which postmodern culture is unable to get outside the ideology of capitalism and thus unable to mount any truly effective critique of it.
The Cabin in the Woods begins with an opening titles sequence, tinted in red, that features Gothic imagery from the horror tradition, accompanied by ominous music. Then, as the film itself begins, it suddenly cuts to a very mundane scene in which two middle-management types (in white shirts and ties) chat beside the office coffee machine. One of them, Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford), is complaining to the other, Gary Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), about the fact that his wife has extensively child-proofed their house, even though they currently have no children and might not even be able to have any. It soon becomes clear that the two men work in a large facility with important international connections, though it is very much unclear just what those operations are. What is clear is that their secret facility is large, well-funded, and high-tech. It has a rather military vibe, though we are reminded within the film that “this isn’t the military.” It is an outpost of something more powerful and more destructive than the military: capitalism itself, specifically capitalism in its contemporary neo-liberal global manifestation (as is emphasized at several points in the film by mentions of various other outposts around the world).
Then the film abruptly cuts to still another completely different setting, in which a group of college guys and girls prepare to go away for a fun weekend at, of course, a cabin in the woods. We know it’s a horror movie, though, and we know what happens at such cabins in horror movies, so we know it’s only a matter of time until things go badly wrong. The cast of characters is carefully chosen as if from a roster of horror film clichés. The girls include the supposedly virginal redhead Dana Polk (Kristen Connelly) and the presumably loose blonde Jules Louden (Anna Hutchison). The guys include hunky athlete Curt Vaughan (Chris Hemsworth), bespectacled scholar Holden McCrea (Jesse Williams), and goofy stoner Marty Mikalski (Fran Krantz). Just for fun, there are a few twists (Curt is actually an excellent student, not a dumb jock, Dana—fresh off an affair with one of her professors—is not really a virgin, and Jules is neither dumb nor naturally blonde, having only recently dyed her hair), but even those are virtual clichés in themselves.
The cabin (the country getaway of Curt’s cousin), of course, is the film’s central cliché, as the title indicates. But before they reach it, the five college kids must first stop to gas up their camper van at the requisite rundown country gas station, manned by the requisite sinister, tobacco-spitting redneck attendant. This attendant, known in the film as “the harbinger,” of course warns the young people that they are likely going to their doom, but they of course merely scoff at him and his pseudo-religious nonsense. The cabin itself, meanwhile, is pretty scary and dilapidated, but it does contain some modern features—such as a one-way mirror on the wall connecting two of the rooms. But, as anyone who has seen the Evil Dead films—the most important of the many referents of this film—would suspect, the real danger lies in the cellar beneath the cabin, which the kids obligingly head down into very soon after arriving.
By this time, however, we already know that they are being maneuvered into going into the cellar by Sitterson and Hadley and their organization, who have the travelers under high-tech surveillance. Indeed, while it takes virtually the entire film for the whole scenario to be made clear, it is obvious that the organization is not merely watching the kids but also subtly managing their actions to make them behave more like stock characters from a horror movie, leading them to their doom. For example, they have laced Jules’ hair dye with a chemical to make her dumber and are meanwhile drugging the kids to ramp up the overall level of libido. Meanwhile, the various employees at the organization’s headquarters make bets on what the kids will do and what will happen to them—this is clearly something they’ve done many times before.
Once the kids have been lured into the cellar, they of course find it filled with all sorts of creepy artifacts, including an old diary detailing the weird experience of the Buckner family, original inhabitants of the cabin. Dana begins to read aloud from the diary—which of course causes the Buckners to be raised from their graves and start stumbling toward the cabin as a “zombie redneck torture family.” Back at headquarters, those who had bet on this particular curse afflicting the kids cheer with glee at their victory. As it turns out, the organization maintains a “stable” of various sorts of monsters and afflictions to use in their missions, all of which are derived from “remnants of the old world.” Part of their work involves giving their subjects just enough free will to choose (however inadvertently) which monsters will afflict them in a particular instance.
Of course, this stable of torments, while given this naturalistic (or perhaps supernaturalistic) explanation, is also derived from various horror film subgenres. For example, while the cabin-in-the-woods motif provides the basic scenario of the film, various sorts of monsters can be called upon to assault the cabin. In addition, the cabin itself includes a torture chamber (called the “black room”), filled with baroque instruments of pain that the Buckners (according to the supplied backstory, anyway) had used while still alive in order to inflict a number of torments on their victims (including their own family members). The implication is clear: many horror films are so formulaic that it is almost as if the characters were being manipulated like the characters in this film.
Once the Buckners have arisen, the next segment of the film involves the efforts of the kids to fight off the zombies, so that for a time we are essentially within a zombie movie, inflected through the hillbilly horror subgenre. Curt and Jules are getting dumber and dumber and hornier and hornier, aided by pheromone mists released by the organization. They start to have sex in the woods outside the cabin, which is apparently what the organization’s “customer” likes. Then, once Jules has finally performed the obligatory baring of breasts, the Buckners have their cue to attack. The “promiscuous” Jules becomes the first victim—just as scripted.
Gradually, we will learn that the kids are being offered up as sacrifices to some mysterious power or powers, eventually identified as Lovecraftian Ancient Ones, powerful gods who lurk beneath the surface of our world and who feed on human fear and death. It is only the sacrifices engineered by the organization that prevent the Ancient Ones from wiping out humanity altogether. And, for a time, it seems that all of the young people are being successfully manipulated toward their deaths. Only the super-high Marty, perhaps made paranoid by marijuana (or perhaps just made resistant to the organization’s drugs), who has the vague feeling of being a puppet, seems to suspect what is going on, while even the brainiacs Dana and Holden are too distracted by their libidos to notice. Even as the zombie family assaults the cabin, the remaining kids continue to behave according to script (with some timely assists from their watchers), except for Marty, who discovers the surveillance equipment in his room, verifying his suspicions that even more is going on than meets the eye. At first he thinks maybe they are just on a reality TV show, but then a zombie crashes through his window, knifes him, and drags him into the woods, apparently making him the second sacrifice.
Soon afterward, the other three kids try to escape in the camper van (and nearly succeed) but find their route blocked by a chasm, somewhat in the mode of the one that blocks Ash’s escape in Evil Dead II. So Curt decides to jump the chasm on his motorcycle, only to crash into an invisible artificial barrier erected by the organization, sending him plunging to his death. Soon afterward, Holden is dispatched as well, leaving only Dana to continue the struggle. As the designated virginal Final Girl, in fact, the script does not even demand that she must die—only that she must undergo a significant amount of suffering, which she has already done.
At this point, then, the organization is prepared to declare victory, having apparently completed their mission successfully. Sitterson, Hadley, and the others crassly begin to celebrate the deaths of the other four young people, oblivious to the fact that Dana is still in danger. It turns out, though, that Marty is still alive, which ruins the party, especially after he and Dana manage to defeat the Buckners and make their way into the underground world of the organization, where they of course encounter other members of its stable of horror creatures, beginning with a werewolf, some ghosts, a girl whose whole face is a many-toothed mouth (like something from a del Toro movie), and a gruesome Cenobite with circular saw blades sticking out of his head (clearly a variant of Hellraiser’sPinhead). By this time, the fact that this stable is made up of various horror movie (and, in some cases, video game) “types” is abundantly clear. Then, to top it off, the camera pulls away to reveal the numerous cells that contain their stable of creatures, including the creepy twins from The Shining, among many others, corresponding to the list of monsters seen earlier in the film when the employees of the organization were betting on which monster would ultimately take down the college kids.
As it turns out, The Cabin in the Woods has one more delight in store for viewers, as the two remaining heroes make their way further into the bowels of the organization’s headquarters, then encounter its Director (the boss of Hadley and Sitterson), who is played by Sigourney Weaver, probably best known for her role as Ripley, the Final Girl of the outer-space slasher film Alien (1979). The Director explains to Marty and Dana certain details concerning their plight, thus also filling in information for any viewers who hadn’t figured it out already (and meanwhile perhaps taking a stab at horror films that feel obligated to explain more than is really necessary). She urges them to quietly accept their fates and thus to dave the world from destruction; instead, they make their way to a control panel that allows them to release the stable of imprisoned monsters, causing havoc within the organization’s headquarters. This leads to an extended (and incredibly bloody) action sequence, in which the various creatures (which even include a killer unicorn) do their work, while Marty and Dana seek a means of escape through all the carnage. Eventually, the whole organization is wiped out, leaving only the two young people, who sttle down to share one last joint and await the end of everything. Perhaps, they conclude, a civilization that must sacrifice its young people in order to survive deserves to be destroyed.
The film does indeed stipulates, that the sacrifices must be young, which comments in a variety of ways on the exploitation of the young by their elders in our contemporary society, perhaps most obviously in the way young people are employed for military duty, sacrificed in wars designed to benefit, not themselves, but the rich and powerful among the older generation. Meanwhile, to the extent that Cabin is a film about horror films, this motif can be taken as a reminder that the horror film industry, though featuring largely youthful characters and designed to appeal primarily to young audiences, is primarily financed, managed, and operated to the profit of their elders, who make big bucks by creating films about the destruction of young people by various evil forces. In this sense, we should remember that the youth-culture hero Whedon himself was 48 in 2012, the year this film was released, while even the fledgling director Goddard was already 37, much older than the young characters in the film, even if quite young by the standards of Hollywood directors.
One way of looking at The Cabin in the Woods is that it projects a world in which all horror films are being engineered by the organization, thus providing an explanation for the fact that so many horror films seem so formulaic—they are, in fact, being generated from a single master script. Indeed, whether one reads the film quite this literally or not, a major project of The Cabin in the Woods is to point out just how stale so many horror film clichés are becoming—though of course the film couldn’t really work unless the clichés it invokes were so well known. In any case, if one reads The Cabin in the Woods simply as a commentary on the sad state of contemporary horror, it becomes a sort of self-undermining artifact: it’s an original and inventive horror film that is basically about the fact that there are no longer any original and inventive horror films, thus adding to the film’s many ironies.
Ben Kooyman addresses this aspect of The Cabin in the Woods, arguing that the activities of Hadley and Sitterson essentially allegorize those of the horror film director. In this sense, according to Kooyman, the two “puppeteers” become stand-ins for journeyman horror directors who, because of the constraints of the marketplace, are forced to work within narrowly defined genre conventions, with little opportunity to exercise anything like genuine creativity. Additiona;ly, the industrial environment of their headquarters suggests, for Kooyman, the businesslike production practices of Hollywood during the old days of the studio system. Ultimately, though, Kooyman puts a positive spin on all this and argues that Hadley and Sitterson are represented in a positive light, because of their resourcefulness in working with the materials that they have. Further, he argues that the activities of Hadley and Sitterson in keeping the Ancient Ones at bay are meant to suggest the positive “societal value” of horror film—even though the ending of the film would seem to call this particular interpretation seriously into question.
Most critics have seen The Cabin in the Woods as being much more critical of horror film in general, and I would have to agree that Kooyman is perhaps being a bit generous in his assessment of the depiction of horror film within the film. On the other hand, while The Cabin in the Woods scores a number of amusing points in its send-up of contemporary horror film, I would also argue that the true message of the film is potentially much deeper and more serious. Whatever horrors the film throws at its young protagonists, those horrors are themselves just puppets. The real villains of the film are the corporate puppeteers back at the military-industrial-complex-style headquarters, wearing their white shirts and ties, drinking their coffee, and making jokes about the destruction they are visiting upon innocent young people. Granting that the film has good reason to be concerned about the violence and gore of recent horror films, Bridget McGovern nevertheless notes that
the genius of The Cabin in the Woods lies precisely in the fact that it leads its audience to question what the genre has become, and what we’re getting out of it. If horror movies are a safe way of exploring fears both primal and cultural, what do we really need to be afraid of, now, in 2012? It’s not the escaped maniac with a hook haunting lovers’ lanes, and it’s not Leatherface (or Deadites, or an off-brand Pinhead, or even a rampaging killer unicorn) … turns out, the new face of ultimate evil is two pasty, middle-aged guys in a golf cart. Or at least, it’s what they represent.
Derrick King argues, along these lines, that the film’s basic structure—in which the young people are supposedly free to make their own choices but are in fact being heavily manipulated by Hadley and Sitterson, can be read as an allegory of the basic political condition of late capitalism. For him, The Cabin in the Woods
can be grasped as a political allegory for the way in which freedom is, under global capitalism, radically overdetermined by mechanisms of ideological, electronic, and biological control that exacerbate inequality and unevenly distribute life itself amongst populations.
In this sense, one could read The Cabin in the Woods as a sort of cautionary tale that warns us of the potential destructive consequences of continuing to let this situation prevail.
Along these lines, Jameson has argued that one of the central problems of life under late capitalism is the difficulty of “cognitive mapping,” of understanding the complex global system within which we live and knowing just how we fit into that system. One of the crucial effects of this failure of cognitive mapping is the vague sense that our lives are being manipulated and controlled by powerful, invisible forces that we can neither identify nor hope to resist. Unable to name these forces, we strike out instead at immigrants, or Muslims, or abortion doctors, using them as stand-in scapegoats for our real tormentors, the behind-the-scenes manipulators like Hadley and Sitterson. The Cabin on the Woods, however, gets to the heart of the matter by suggesting that our lives are not being wounded by godless scientists or welfare mothers or hippie tree huggers, but by the military-industrial complex, as represented by soulless, heartless functionaries of the ilk of Hadley, Sitterson and their colleagues, which is the real puppet master that is pulling the strings that operate our everyday world.
Meanwhile, one crucial element of the plot of The Cabin in the Woods involves the fact that similar affiliated organizations are orchestrating sacrifices to the Ancient Ones all over the world, which is would of course be the case in the era of global capitalism. Unfortunately, the intended victims in one scenario after another manage to escape death and defeat evil. But someone must be sacrificed to appease the Ancient Ones, lest they take vengeance by destroying human civilization altogether. Thus, the United States emerges as humanity’s last bastion against total destruction, enacting (with an irony that is clearly intended as a criticism) the longtime myth of American exceptionality, as well as the more recent vision that it is up to the United States to serve as the world’s policeman.
The Cabin in the Woods goes even farther. By supplying a narrative framework within which the organization justifies its activities as necessary in order to protect our civilization, it strikes at the very heart of the arguments through which the United States has long justified siphoning off an obscenely large percentage of our national wealth to support the military (and the constellation of fat-cat defense contractors that surrounds it), giving it the most destructive power of any military in the history of the world, while our national infrastructure crumbles and our social programs gradually spiral downward toward the level of what used to be called the “third world.” Perhaps it is no wonder that horror movies are thriving in the twenty-first century, when the entire United States operates on an economy of fabricated fear, struggling desperately to find new bogies to replace the specter of communism that once haunted us, thus justifying the allocation of more and more resources to fight off these new and more nefarious threats. By daring to address this phenomenon, The Cabin in the Woods is a brave film, indeed, though one could also argue that addressing it within the framework of a popular horror film significantly defuses its subversive message. In our current climate, however, one might argue that cultural forms such as the horror film, which are able to fly under the radar of the powers-that-be because they are regarded as mere entertainment and as politically harmless, are the only available tools for making such arguments.
Fear, of course, is the central resource of the horror film, so the horror film might be the ideal venue within which to explore the extent to which neo-liberal society, with its array of perceived threats and its economic precarity, operates according to a dynamic of fear, a dynamic that is closely related to the individualist ethos of capitalism, pushed to new heights under neo-liberalism. After all, surrounded by danger, there is nothing more frightening than being alone. Little wonder then, that one of the first moves of the puppeteers of The Cabin in the Woods (and a move they make repeatedly) is to separate the victims into different rooms. As Blouin puts it,
Rather than expose American neo-liberalism as a bureaucracy of fear, Goddard’s film suggests that contemporary horror films tacitly affirm the apparatus. Hadley and Sitterson separate the various characters from one another. They weed out those that are pre-determined to be weaker. Dana and her cohort are pushed into separate rooms to face the evil alone. They are deliberately kept from working together. The violent undercurrents of individualism emerge, a common recurrence celebrated with shots of tequila by the group running the game. (95)
Meanwhile, McGovern makes an interesting argument that The Cabin in the Woods is able to deliver its message while remaining entertaining because it is essentially constructed in the same fashion as John Hughes movies, especially The Breakfast Club. In those films, society attempts to force young people into pre-scripted roles, only to have the young people rebel and refuse to play the game, opting to become the people they choose to become. McGovern also approvingly compares the motif of rebellious young people vs. repressive authority that she sees as central to The Cabin in the Woods to the individual vs. society structure of the recent teen-oriented dystopian film The Hunger Games (2012).
The problem with this logic, of course, is that it remains thoroughly inscribed within the ideology of capitalism. Films about brave individual heroes facing up to and successfully resisting large, evil, corporatized structures create the illusion that such localized individual resistance—as opposed to large-scale, collective action—can actually be effective. This illusion, of course, is precisely the one that the capitalist powers-that-be want their Culture Industry to deliver, because it helps to defuse any momentum toward collective resistance. What McGovern does not point out is that the individualist rebellion of the young people in The Cabin in the Woods actually fails utterly. They do manage to bring down the huge organization (read, capitalism) that has been pulling their strings, but they also bring down everything else as well, because, as mere individuals, they are unable to supply any sort of replacement structure (such as socialism) to protect humanity from the abyss.
This ending, though, would seem to offer a number of different interpretations. For one thing, it could be taken as commentary on the kinds of apocalyptic endings that horror movies often have and that horror fans seem to enjoy, perhaps because—as Jameson suggests in his “Future City” essay—it is the only way, in the postmodern era, to imagine the end of capitalism. On a more specifically political level, this ending can be taken as seriously raising the question, s do Marty and Dana, of whether a society that sacrifices its young people (by breaking their spirits and turning them into obedient corporate drones) really deserves to survive. I see little reason, however, to interpret this film as literally advocating the destruction of all of humanity in order to get us out of our current morass. Instead, I view the ending of the film as an exemplary postmodernist one, per the theorization of Jameson. This film clearly wishes to make a strong statement about the failings of capitalism but is simply unable to imagine any specific alternative that might be preferable.
To its credit, The Cabin in the Woods does, however, highlight its own inability to imagine alternatives, potentially identifying this inability as a crucial part of the neo-liberal postmodern condition. The end of the film does this most spectacularly and obviously, but there is also a passing moment, seemingly insignificant, early in the film when a crucial point about the unavailability of viable alternatives is made. As Dana and Jules pack to go away for the weekend, Jules discovers that Dana has packed some textbooks, including one entitled Soviet Economic Structures. Jules discards the textbooks, insisting that Dana replace them with things like a tiny bikini, one of the emblems of the pleasure-based consumerist culture of the West.The point is presumably that she wants Dana to concentrate on having fun instead of studying, but one could argue that this goal is also central to the mind-numbing machinations of neo-liberal capitalist ideology, with American popular culture as its central delivery mechanism. In addition, that the book being discarded is one on Soviet economics makes it clear that it is not simply critical thinking in general that is being discouraged under last capitalism. Socialism, in particular, is being discarded, because it potentially represents the most powerful and viable alternative.
This is not to say that The Cabin in the Woods specifically recommends socialism as an alternative to the capitalist system it criticizes. Rather, the film here simply acknowledges that socialism, at least for now, is no longer regarded as a serious alternative. By so doing, though, it potentially makes its most telling observation about the workings of neo-liberal capitalism and its insidious strategy of convincing individuals that there is no other way. This is the strategy that Mark Fisher has identified as central to what he calls “capitalist realism” (essentially synonymous with postmodernism), noting that the Thatcher administration in England (a key actor in the rise of neo-liberalism) literally employed the slogan “There Is No Alternative.” Again, however, it is probably Jameson who provides the best gloss on The Cabin in the Woods in this sense. In Archaeologies of the Future he again notes the contemporary inability to imagine utopian alternatives to the capitalist order. Further, he argues that the collapse of the utopian imagination is so sweeping that “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment … and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively (xiii). Unable to imagine an historically viable alternative to capitalism, The Cabin in the Woods imagines instead the end of the world, which is a pretty comprehensive failure. But, by calling attention to this failure, it perhaps strikes its most telling blow against neo-liberal capitalism. Acknowledging the way in which neo-liberal capitalism creates the belief that there is no alternative to its own gruesome logic is at least a step toward getting beyond that logic, even if a problematic one. In the following sections of this volume, I discuss It Follows and Sorry to Bother You, two postmodern horror films that are able to go even farther in mounting challenges to the notion that there is no alternative to capitalism.
IT FOLLOWS (2014): DIRECTOR DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL
It Follows begins with a shot of a peaceful-looking, middle-class American neighborhood. Nice (but not too nice) older homes are discreetly space along a quiet street, their lawns dominated by large old trees. It’s a classic setting for American horror, which—at least since Halloween (1978)—has so often focused on the dark dangers that potentially lurk beneath the placid, secure surface of middle America. This film, in fact, is constructed almost entirely of well-known horror-film motifs, the most important of which are the motif of a curse that is passed from one person to another—central to the recent Drag Me to Hell (2009)—and the even more classic motif of the notion that engaging in sex can make one a prime target for violent murder—central to entire genre of the slasher film. What is different here is that the two motifs are combined into one, so that the curse is passed from one person to another through sexual transmission. This motif makes the film an obvious allegory about sexually-transmitted disease (especially HIV/AIDS, given that the curse is so deadly), but this film is also marked by a number of stylistic flourishes that mark it as clearly postmodern and that tend to complicate any simple interpretations of the film.
Also in classic horror-film mode, the opening shot in It Follows is part of a teaser prologue that sets up the remainder of the film. As this opening scene proceeds, a teenage girl—Annie (Bailey Spry)—comes running out of one of the houses and into the street, as if something is chasing her. She’s wearing shorts and a tank top, but also spike heels. The odd ensemble adds to the sense that something is wrong, but she assures two inquirers (including her dad) that everything is fine. We’re not so sure, though, and her incongruous ensemble creates a sense of uncertainty that will recur many times in the film. Then Annie turns and runs back to her house and through the front door, passing her confused dad on the way. “What’s going on?” he asks, and we might very well be wondering the same thing. Then she immediately runs back out of the house, car keys in hand, jumps into a late-model (possibly 2014) Nissan Versa automobile (with recent Michigan plates) in the driveway, and drives frantically away from the house, again as if she is being chased by something, though there is nothing shown on the screen that appears to be chasing her. There are few other clues, though we do see that her house number is “1492,” corresponding to the year of Columbus’s first trip to the Americas—one of the most remembered years in American history, probably rivaled only by 1776. This number suggests that something relating to Columbus’s voyage—or perhaps something simply relating to history in general—might be important to this film, though there are no other related clues at this point. Annie drives to the beach, then sits in the sand in the beams of the car’s headlights. When her father calls her on her cellphone, she tells him she loves him—in a mode that sounds like a goodbye. A sudden cut to her violently mangled body on the beach suggests that she knew what she was talking about.
Another cut shifts to the main narrative and back to a seemingly peaceful neighborhood (though apparently not the same one as in the prologue, which was a bit more modern and upscale). However, as the camera moves through this neighborhood, it makes a point of highlighting the trash in the gutter by the street, suggesting that things might not be as ideal here as they seem. Another girl, Jay Height (Maika Monroe), floats on her back in her family’s above-ground swimming pool. It’s a nice accoutrement of middle-class life, but hardly a sign of extravagant wealth. That the pool is not too clean, with patches of dirt on the bottom, reinforces the notion that it is a rather modest luxury. Jay floats on her back and looks through beautiful trees at a lovely cloud-speckled sky. She enjoys watching a squirrel and a bird playing on power lines overhead, though those power lines look a bit ominous. The background music in the scene feels a bit ominous as well, like something from a David Lynch film, with a dash of John Carpenter. Then Jay notices an ant crawling on her arm—another hint that there are flaws in this ostensibly idyllic suburban paradise. Meanwhile, neighborhood boys stealthily peer through the fence to try to get a look at Jay’s bikini-clad body. Nothing really bad is shown in the scene, but it does create a certain expectation that something bad might be coming.
While there are no events of consequence in this scene, we are—as so often happens in this movie—given a great deal of information, though it is not clear how we should interpret it. When Jay goes inside, we encounter another scene that seems almost overloaded with information. She finds that her sister Kelly (Lile Sepe) and her friends are watching the science fiction film Killers from Space (1954) on a clunky old CRT television, clearly suggesting that we might want to keep in mind the classic alien-invasion films of the 1950s as potential background to this film, but also creating confusion about exactly when this film is supposed to be set, especially as the décor of the house seems as old-fashioned as the television. Is this a leap back into the past, relative to the prologue? Temporal markers are, in fact, scrambled throughout It Follows, contributing to a sense of confusion and interpretive instability that reigns throughout the film. In any case, the friends constitute what seems to be a reasonably typical group of teens, though it updates the typical teen dynamic when young Yara Davis (Olivia Luccardi) jokingly farts toward the nerdy-looking Paul Bolduan (Keir Gilchrist), reversing a classic moment of teen vulgarity in which it is usually the boy who farts. If nothing else, the fart seems to indicate that these are old friends, comfortable in the presence of each other. Meanwhile, Mrs. Height (Debbie Williams) sits at a dining table behind the teens, oblivious and seemingly distracted. She has a glass of wine, suggesting that she might have retreated from reality into drink. She seems the typical out-of-it suburban mom. Meanwhile, the bookish and bespectacled Yara is reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (which she claims is about Paul) on her e-reader, suddenly giving the setting a contemporary feel. The problem is that her clamshell-style e-reader does not resemble any device that actually existed in the world of 2014 (or any other world we know of), possibly suggesting a science-fictional element in the film. It’s an odd science-fictional element, though, because it’s not really a very practical design and seems likely far less functional than a Kindle or other real-world e-readers. Is this some sort of alternate reality?
Killers from Space, incidentally,stars Peter Graves as Dr. Douglas Martin; Graves, meanwhile, was the brother of actor James Arness (of Gunsmoke fame), who played the alien in the classic alien invasion film The Thing from Another World (1951), one of the most influential such films of all time. It was, for example, a major influence on John Carpenter and is featured in Carpenter’s Halloween when the kids of the film view it on television. Carpenter himself remade The Thing from Another World in 1982 as The Thing, a much-admired film that has influenced many subsequent horror films. It Follows director David Robert Mitchell, for example, has identified Carpenter’s remake, along with his Halloween (1978), as two of the most important inspirations for It Follows. As Mitchell said in an interview:
I totally love Carpenter—Halloween, and his version of The Thing is a favorite of mine. I’ve definitely watched his movies a million times. I’m a fan of his blocking and his staging and his compositions. For me, it wasn’t just about saying, “This particular shot is a Carpenter homage.” I’ve watched his stuff enough that’s probably going to come out in the filmmaking. (Dowd)
In terms of both style and content, It Follows in fact shows the influence of numerous horror film predecessors. Indeed, aside from its obvious meaning, the title of the film can also be taken to indicate the way in which the film follows in the footsteps of so many predecessors. Meanwhile, that a science fiction/horror hybrid such as The Thing would be a major influence, suggests that we look for science fictional as well as horror influences. However, beyond the glimpses of Yara’s e-reader and of films such as Killers from Space, there are few true science-fictional elements in It Follows. On the other hand, the film does operate essentially in the mode critics have associated with science fiction for decades now. I am thinking in particular of the academic (especially Marxist) strain of science fiction criticism that began with the work of Darko Suvin in the 1970s. According to Suvin, science fiction is first and foremost a literature of “cognitive estrangement” that places readers in a world different from their own, causing them to ponder those differences and thus to view their own world from a fresh perspective. In particular, this experience of estrangement might cause readers of science fiction to ponder ways in which their own world might be different, thus giving it a strong utopian dimension. In this sense, Suvin sees science fiction as operating much in the mode of the “epic” theater of the German leftist dramatist Bertolt Brecht, and it is surely no accident that, earlier in his career, Suvin had been primarily a Brecht scholar.
For Suvin, meanwhile, other forms of non-realist narratives (he singles out fantasy, but a similar characterization would pertain to horror) have less political power: they present readers with worlds different from their own but do not typically ask them to think critically about the ways in which those worlds are different. Recent scholars of fantasy literature have revised Suvin’s view of that genre, seeing significant utopian/political potential in the works of recent leftist fantasy writers such as Britain’s China Miéville. Here, Fredric Jameson has led the way by declaring that works such as Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), demonstrate the potential for a “radical fantasy” that is “capable of registering systemic change and of relating superstructural symptoms to infrastructural shifts and modifications” (“Radical” 280). With It Follows one might see something similar happening with horror—though it is also worth noting that Miéville’s work itself (often characterized as “weird fantasy”) contains significant doses of material derived from the horror tradition.
In any case, whatever their political potential (something to which I will return at the end of this essay), the various instances of cognitive estrangement that are produced by It Follows clearly impact our viewing of the film. For example, one could argue that Yara’s clam-shell reader is designed precisely to call attention to her reading—as a Kindle would not be likely to do. On the other hand, it is also highly unusual to find a teenager in a horror film (or in the real world, for that matter) reading a book at all, much less a book by Dostoevsky. The other teens in the scene don’t seem at all surprised by Yara’s reading of The Idiot, though: Jay merely asks if it’s any good, as if she might want to read it herself, but Yara is still very early in the book and answers, “I don’t know yet.” It seems a throwaway exchange, but it does suggest that these teens might be more literate than the ones we have become accustomed to in horror film. In any case, the clam-shell reader calls extra attention to Yara’s reading and asks us to consider whether reading might be a crucial motif in this film—or whether The Idiot might be an important gloss.
As it turns out, The Idiot does shed at least some light on It Follows. In particular, while Yara’s remark that the book is about Paul would seem simply to be a joking suggestion that Paul is an idiot, it is worth pursuing her suggestion a bit further. The main character of The Idiot is Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, who is most decidedly not an idiot—but who is regarded as mentally challenged by some of the more worldly charactersbecause of his naïve goodness and generosity toward others. Myshkin is almost saintly in his dealings with the book’s central female character, Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova, a dazzling beauty whom some of the other male characters (especially the dastardly Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin) treat far less kindly—essentially as a sexual object. For example, Myshkin offers to marry Nastasya Filippovna in order to save her from the clutches of Rogozhin (who eventually murders her), just as Paul offers to have sex with Jay in order to lift the curse that has been placed upon her. The appearance of The Idiot within It Follows does, therefore, shed a bit of light on Paul’s character in the film, while also providing an early hint that Jay’s current boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), cast in the role of Rogozhin, might be up to no good.
It is clear that this world does not necessarily operate according to the perceived rules of what we know as reality, but what rules (if any) does it follow? Indeed, much of the experience of watching the first segments of It Follows consist of an extended exercise in trying to get our bearings and trying to understand the world in which the film is set—an experience that is usually associated more with science fiction (whose worlds are expected to differ from our own in ways that can be rationally understood). This is an exercise in what Jameson calls “cognitive mapping,” in which individuals in the postmodern world must constantly struggle to understand the confusing, rapidly-changing, and increasingly globalized system in which they live. For Jameson, this cognitive mapping is a crucial form of resistance to capitalist domination, potentially providing tools that individuals need to overcome their manipulation by a capitalist system that employs subterfuge and obfuscation as crucial weapons. Jameson concludes that, if postmodernist art is to have any political power it all, it would probably lie in its ability to encourage us to learn to perform feats of cognitive mapping. He thus argues that, “the political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as spatial scale” (Postmodernism 54).
By constantly asking us to perform such feats, It Follows might be seen as a step in the direction that Jameson here indicates. For example, in the scene just after the one involving the clamshell e-reader, we see Jay in her room, which presents us with more estranging information to process. For example, Jay has another old-fashioned television, with rabbit ears. Most of the furniture looks vaguely like something from the period of the 1950s to the 1970s. Jay gets dressed and puts on makeup—a possible reference to the scene in which the title character of Carrie (1976) gets ready for her prom. Jay then heads out for her movie date with twenty-one-year-old Hugh. The movie theater is definitely old-style, with elaborate Japanese-themed décor like something from a 1930s movie palace. An old woman plays music on a vintage Wurlitzer organ prior to the beginning of the film, further enhancing the antique feel. The film showing in the theater is Charade (1963), though there is no indication whether this is a first-run showing or a later revival. Still, it is clear that the temporal indicators in this scene are completely scrambled, perhaps in ways that might encourage us to ask questions such as, what makes one time period different from another?
Before the movie begins, Hugh and Jay decide to play a game in which each has to guess which audience member the other would most like to trade places with. Hugh chooses a young boy, because the boy still has his whole life ahead of him, with unlimited possibilities. We will soon learn that Hugh has special reasons for envying the young and the innocent, though it is also the case that the contrast between innocence and experience (a classic theme in Western culture) constitutes a thread that runs throughout this film. Trying to guess whom Jay has chosen, Hugh apparently sees a girl whom Jay cannot see, whereupon he gets seriously spooked and insists that they leave, pronto, with no explanation.
On their next date, Hugh and Jay have sex for the first time in the backseat of his vintage auto (a 1975 Plymouth Gran Fury), with a large building looming behind them. The scene is made more ominous by the knowledge that the building is the Northville Psychiatric Hospital, a Detroit facility that was closed in 2003 and that had been rumored to be haunted ever since. As of this writing in early 2019, the building is in the process of being demolished. To add creepiness to the setting, the wooded area around the hospital is known as the “Evil Woods” by the locals, complete with lots of stories of paranormal activity.
After they have sex, Jay kisses Hugh tenderly, but somewhat dispassionately, on the forehead. Hugh seems distracted and even less passionate—for good reason, as we will learn. It’s a big moment in their relationship, but it seems oddly affectless. Lying across the backseat of the car and playing with flowers growing on the ground outside the car, Jay begins to wax nostalgic about how her childhood self habitually fantasized about the freedoms that would come with being older, when she would be free to come and go as she pleased. “Now that we’re old enough,” she muses in a melancholy mode, “where the hell do we go?” Then, as if to verify Jay’s sense that acting out her childhood fantasies is turning out to be a disappointment, Hugh chloroforms her, and she awakes tied to a wheelchair, half-naked, amid what is implied to be the ruins of the abandoned psychiatric hospital. It’s a creepy setting, for sure, but one that is also rich with significance. As films such as Session 9 (2001)and Grave Encounters (2011) have demonstrated, abandoned psychiatric hospitals represent particularly creepy settings for horror films, and this one is no different, though the building is not actually identified in the film, which perhaps decreases that effect. What is clear, though, is that it is a dilapidated ruin, thus serving as an emblem of the well-known decay of Detroit as a city—a motif that was emphasized just a year before in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive.
Given this creepy setting (and the fact that Jay has been rendered unconscious and then tied to a wheelchair), It Follows finally seems to be showing its horror film colors, roughly eighteen minutes in, though each scene is so packed with information that it seems longer. Hugh seems to have revealed his true colors as well, though not completely. Will he torture her? Kill her? Then he reveals his true agenda and the true premise of the film. He is being followed by an inexorable and unstoppable Entity that is determined to kill him. Like Christine in Drag Me to Hell (2009), he can only save himself by passing on the curse to someone else. In this case, however, the only way he can pass the curse to someone else is by having sex with them, which means the curse has now been transferred to Jay. He has tied Jay to the wheelchair so that she can see It approaching and will thus take his warnings seriously.
The Entity can take the form of anyone, though only the cursed person (and previously cursed people), can see it. Viewers of the film can generally see it as well, and one of the creepiest things about the film is the Entity’s tendency to take on such bizarre and nightmarish forms and to appear in strange places—as when, in one scene when It is chasing Jay, It appears atop her house as a naked, elderly man. It is, in fact, often naked, and seems to prefer taking on obscene and troubling forms, possibly derived from the unconscious fears of the victim, though the motivation behind these forms is never made clear. While Jay is in the wheelchair, a naked woman approaches (we will later learn that It has taken the form of Hugh’s mother); Hugh then wheels Jay away and takes her back to her home, where he leaves her in the street and hurriedly drives off. Meanwhile, Hugh has advised her to pass the curse on to someone else before the Entity can kill her, a suggestion that is not especially generous, given that he also informs her that, if It does kill her, the curse will revert to him. The rest of the film then involves Jay’s efforts to evade the curse with the help of Kelly, Yara, Paul, and their neighbor Greg Hannigan (Daniel Zovatto). As often happens in teen horror films, authority figures are not much help, and the teens have to fend for themselves. Mrs. Height, who has pretty much checked out and withdrawn from life, seems especially useless, though the police are not a lot better. Even the other teens don’t believe in the curse at first, though events quickly convince them.
We don’t really know what Mrs. Height thinks about the curse or anything else, though, because she is such a distant figure, almost like a ghost haunting the Height home. She seems a broken woman, perhaps because of the absence of her husband, the father of her two daughters. The daughters seem relatively normal and functional, but certain aspects of Jay’s behavior in the film seem subtly informed by a certain affectlessness and lack of trust. Andy Hoglund is probably right to argue that Jay seems to have suffered some sort of emotional trauma even before her experience with Hugh and the curse. Ultimately, for Hoglund, It Follows is really the story of “the journey of a young woman coping with the fact she lives in a world where nearly all the men in her life—including her dad—can’t ever fully be trusted.”
The Idiot might provide some helpful insight here, as well. A key source of the troubles of Nastasya Filippovna in Dostoevsky’s novel is the fact that she was orphaned at the age of seven, then raised by a guardian (Totsky) who abused her and placed her in a position of sexual servitude. There is no indication in It Follows that Jay was sexually abused by her father (though that might explain the broken condition of her mother), but the fact that Nastasya Filippovna has been so thoroughly betrayed sheds some suggestive light on Jay’s seemingly traumatized condition.
If It Follows provides few details about exactly what might have happened within Jay’s family, it is much more explicit in its presentation of the curse at the center of the film as an allegorical stand-in for the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases. In addition, it just as clearly allegorizes much more, including overall social anxieties about sex and sexuality and about how being introduced to sex might lead to bad things for young people. When Paul and Yara sleep over at Kelly and Jay’s house to help calm Jay’s anxieties, Jay and Paul (with another old science fiction film playing on TV in the background) discuss the time when, as kids, they and Kelly were caught reading some porno magazines by Greg’s mom, who frantically took away the magazines, then reported the event to the parents, who just as frantically gave their children the “sex ed talk,” hopefully to control the flow of sexually-related information to their children.
Such information forms a crucial part of the experience of growing up and thus directly addresses the dynamic of innocence vs. experience that is so central to It Follows, which adds an even broader dimension to the allegorical aspects of the film.In this sense, the film can be taken as a statement in favor of adequate education and in support of more appropriate preparation of young people to deal with the adult world than we currently have. Within this framework, sex education would of course be key, and he film certainly indicates that young people need to know about sex in order to grow up safely and properly. After all, anyone who has sex in the world of this film is apt to be able to survive only if they have full information about the curse and what it entails. Much of the film is spent, in fact, in gathering information and trying to interpret it to best effect. For example, almost Scooby-Doo-like,Jay and her gang set about playing detective, tracking down Hugh (who has now disappeared) to try to acquire more information about how to evade the curse. They drive through dilapidated areas of Detroit seeking Hugh, again emphasizing the decay of the city. Finally, they locate the abandoned house where he has been hiding out. It’s in a rundown neighborhood that looks like it might once have been nice, like the one where Jay and the other teens live now. The jarring contrast between the ruined areas of the city and the suburban areas that are still in good shape emphasizes how far the city has fallen, but it also reinforces the sense of temporal uncertainty that runs throughout the film. It is almost as if Jay’s neighborhood and this one exist in complete different times, even though the difference is really a matter of location.
Using information found in the abandoned house, the teen detectives finally trace Hugh (real name Jeff Redmond) to his real home, again in a nice neighborhood of Detroit. They don’t learn much from him, other than the fact that It always travels on foot, so that driving can at least buy time by putting it in the distance. So the teens head out in Greg’s car to drive to his family’s lakeside country house. On the way, Kelly asks Greg if his mom is going to freak out at their abrupt departure for the house, and he tells her that “she won’t even know.” Apparently, Kelly and Jay’s mom is not the only parent in this film who is completely out of touch with the lives of her children.
Luckily, the young people have each other. The way in which the teens work together has a clear utopian dimension, suggesting some genuine group solidarity—as opposed to the every-person-for-themselves attitude often seen in horror (and other) movies. Paul, who has been Jay’s neighbor all his life, seems particularly selfless in his devotion to her. In one scene, Yara and Kelly agree that Jay is “so pretty it’s annoying,” whereupon Paul adds that “at least she’s nice,” making it clear that he is sweet on Jay and eliciting a look of exasperation from Kelly. When Paul later offers to have sex with Jay in order to shift the attentions of the Entity from her to him, it seems to be a genuinely giving gesture and not just a maneuver to get her to have sex with him—somewhat along the lines of the marriage proposal issued by the selfless Prince Myshkin to the beleaguered Nastasya Filippovna in The Idiot.
Greg, on the other hand, is a different story. He, in fact, does have sex with Jay (while she is in the hospital recovering from injuries suffered while fleeing the Entity), but only because he still doesn’t believe in the curse. Exactly how unscrupulous he is being here (one could argue that he is trying to make Jay feel better by making her believe that the curse has been lifted and not just looking for an opportunity to have sex), but he pays for the gesture. The curse is, in fat, transferred to him, and the Entity (in the guise of his own mother) kills him in a rather obscene manner. The curse reverts to Jay. For her part, Jay says she didn’t think it would be a big deal to have sex with Greg, as they had already had sex together back in high school, though it remains unclear what she means here: does she mean she didn’t think the curse would transfer to him, or does she mean that she herself didn’t find it onerous to have sex with him?
Whatever Jay’s motives with regard to Greg, she declines Paul’s offer to have sex, precisely because she doesn’t want to transfer the curse to him. Then, as the film nears its end, with the Entity having seemingly been killed, she does have sex with Paul and they seem to have become a couple. They seem unlikely to live together happily ever after, though. As the film ends, they are walking hand-in-hand down a sidewalk, and someone (possibly the Entity) seems to be following them.
It’s a fairly typical horror-film ending, that (among other things) sets up a possible sequel. But it also resonates with the other themes of the film to suggest that life’s dangers are never over. One does not merely pass through the crisis period of adolescence and then sail smoothly forward thereafter. Even as one crisis is seemingly averted, there will always be new crises on the way. This ending, combined with the constant demand for cognitive mapping that operates throughout the film, also suggests that the need for such mapping is also ongoing. Because the world of late capitalism is constantly changing, one’s cognitive map must be continually updated to reflect new information and new situations. It is not likely, of course, that a film like It Follows is going to transform the world and lead young people to the kind of enlightenment needed to build a genuinely better world. It might, however, be an early step in the right direction; enough such steps might eventually mean that what follows is precisely that better world.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018): DIRECTOR BOOTS RILEY
At first glance, Sorry to Bother You might not appear to be a horror film. Indeed, it is such an unusual film that it is hard to place in any category at all. It is certainly a work of satire, and one that deals with extremely serious and complex issues, though (as satire always does) it exaggerates and simplifies those issues for rhetorical effectiveness. It includes what one might think of as science fictional elements, especially in the way it creates a world that has access to technologies that are not currently available in our world. But it provides essentially no details about the working of those technologies and seems to have little interest in the actual science behind them. There are moments, however, of almost classic horror, as when protagonist Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfeld) first discovers the suffering “horse people,” who seem to be the result of a macabre experiment straight out of something like The Island of Lost Souls (1932). The real horror of Sorry to Bother You, though, is the system of capitalist exploitation on which the film so doggedly focuses its satire—and one of the biggest advantages of reading the film within the context of horror is that it helps to clarify the horrors that are being revealed in the film, horrors to which we have become so accustomed that they are in danger of appearing natural and unavoidable.
It is tempting to read Sorry to Bother You as a sort of companion film to Get Out, another effective horror satire with a black writer-writer and black protagonist. Indeed, much of the satire of Sorry to Bother You is also aimed at racism—most obviously seen when Cassius gets a job as a telemarketer for a company called “Regalview,” then quickly discovers that he will have far greater success in this job if he adopts a “white” voice (supplied for the film by comedian David Cross), which presumably reassures customers and makes them more receptive to his sales pitch. The resultant implication is clear: racism is so deeply ingrained in American society that African Americans, in order to succeed, have to play by the rules of white-dominated society and to behave as if they are white, even if they are not literally “passing” as white people in their lives.
Extending this point, Cassius eventually becomes so accustomed to using his “white” voice on the job that he begins using it in his private life as well—without even being conscious that he is doing so. The film thus makes clear the extent to which this need to behave according to white standards can be internalized in African Americans to the point that it becomes an unconscious habit. That Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) reacts so negatively to this “white” voice helps to make clear just how problematic this phenomenon can be, representing what might be described as the colonization of the consciousnesses of African Americans by white modes of thinking, bringing with it an unconscious sense that white modes of thinking, acting, and talking are the “correct” and “normal” ways, superior to the “incorrect” and “aberrant” ways of black people.
However, in the case of Sorry to Bother You, this commentary on racism is secondary to the film’s central focus on the exploitation of both workers and consumers by the movers and shakers of the capitalist economic system. Regalview itself is an extremely exploitative employer, paying its telemarketers only in commissions, while keeping the majority of the fruits of their labors for itself. They also employ a ludicrous system of incentives in order to try to make workers think they are being rewarded more fairly than they really are. The only way, in fact, to make anything close to an adequate wage is to sell so many of the company’s largely useless products that one is promoted to the status of “power caller,” literally moved upstairs to the top floor of the Regalview building to sell elite, high-profit products among one’s fellow power callers.
Tellingly, the power callers are required to speak in white voices at all times while at work (not just when they are on sales calls), thus emphasizing the way in which these power callers, even if black, have been thoroughly incorporated within the white-dominated establishment. Indeed, virtually all of the practices on the top floor seem specifically designed to separate the power callers from the company’s ordinary workers, potentially depriving those workers of their best minds and of potential leaders who might help them to organize to get better treatment from their employer. That this is the case is made clear when Cassius is made a power caller just as the ordinary callers are beginning to attempt to organize into a union under the leadership of one Squeeze (Stephen Yeun). When Squeeze eventually leads the callers in a strike action, Cassius assures them that he sympathizes with their cause. Unfortunately, though, as a power caller he is considered management, rather than labor, so he feels compelled to cross the picket line and go to work, despite the strike, causing considerable friction between him and his former fellow workers—not to mention Detroit.
The central conceit of Sorry to Bother You involves a company called “WorryFree” that supplies labor to other corporations. WorryFree’s workers are contractually bound to the company for life; in return, the workers and their families are supplied with food and lodging right on their jobsites, thereby freeing them of the need to worry about such necessities (thus the name of the company). This arrangement, which essentially reduces the workers to the status of company property, is understandably controversial and meets with considerable opposition, both official and unofficial—though of course this opposition is never in danger of actually threatening the program. Indeed, despite concern that the company’s practices represent little more than a new form of slavery, WorryFree is highly successful and rapidly growing. The most effective resistance to their growth comes not from the government or the press but from an underground organization known as “Left Eye” (suggestion their leftist vision), which wages a campaign of graffiti and other forms of minor sabotage against WorryFree.
The key plot moment in Sorry to Bother You occurs when Cassius is promoted to power caller and finds that his main job in that capacity involves selling the problematic services of WorryFree to other corporations. These services provide cheap, dependable sources of labor that can be converted into huge profits by WorryFree’s customers. As a result, Cassius is able to reap large rewards as well, allowing him to move with Detroit out of his uncle’s garage and into a swanky new apartment. These rewards give new meaning to the fact that Cassius’ name is a near homonym for “Cash is green” and to the fact that most of his friends call him “Cash” most of the time. The rewards are also significant enough that he is able to overcome his concerns about the ethics of his job. At first, Detroit enjoys their new life as well, but in her case the ends do not justify the means. Ultimately, she leaves Cash because she cannot support his decision to cross the picket lines, especially as that decision involves work for WorryFree, an unscrupulous organization she is working to undermine as a Left Eye activist.
In general, Sorry to Bother You paints its satire in broad strokes, and it is quite clear that Detroit occupies the high ground here. However, this is a film that supplements its overt satirical points with more subtle ones as well. In addition to her secret political activism and her work as a sign twirler to generate income, Detroit is also an ambitious performance artist of considerable talent, who hopes to use her art as a means of political expression. In one scene, Squeeze explains to her that, as a union organizer, he travels around to various places where folks have trouble and helps them try to fix it. “That’s what I do with my art, too!” she enthusiastically responds, you know? Expose the bullshit.” Squeeze expresses some skepticism, but backs off, avoiding a confrontation, and changes the topic to ask how her relationship with Cash is going. It works, she explains, because “he’s real. He’s not that fake-ass bougie gallery world.”
In the light of Cash’s subsequent sell-out as a power caller, just how real he might be will be called seriously into question. Meanwhile, if Detroit is to have true success as an artist, she needs the bourgeois world of art galleries, no matter how inauthentic that world might appear to be. So her disavowal of the establishment art scene is a bit questionable as well. Cassius himself calls her out on this after she derides him for crossing the picket line so he can pursue his work of “selling slave labor.” The strike at RegalView will do nothing about the practices of Worry Free, he responds, and neither will her work as an artist, which consists basically of “selling fucking art to rich people.” His remark clearly hits a nerve, but she nevertheless issues an ultimatum, warning him that their relationship is over if he crosses the picket line again.
He continues to cross the picket line anyway, temporarily ending their relationship. On one subsequent crossing, he is hit in the head by a soda can thrown by one of the strikers. The event is capture on video, then goes viral on-line (with added comic sound effects), reaching 500 million views on YouTube. This video makes Cassius an instant celebrity—though one who is mostly famous as the butt of derisive jokes. Cassius’s encounter with the soda can even becomes the stuff of a popular television commercial for the soda company, accompanied by the slogan “have a soda and smile, bitch.” “You’re like the Ariana Grande of disloyal niggas,” declares Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), one of his former associates among the regular callers at RegalView. This motif allows the film to take a satirical jab at the role of social media in the dumbing down of public discourse in twenty-first-century America.
The blow also causes Cassius to go through most of the second half of the film with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head—as a sort of symbol of his role as a sell-out. Later, when Cassius attends a party to celebrate the opening of Detroit’s new Africa-oriented art exhibit, we find that she speaks in a pretentious British accent at the party, both while mingling with potential upper-class buyers and in her main performance piece, during which she stands on stage, near-naked, reciting lines from a movie while the attendees throw items (including broken cell phones and balloons filled with sheep’s blood) at her. Shocked, Cassius (bloody bandage on his head) tries to interrupt the performance, but she (covered in sheep’s blood) sends him on his way, telling him that he of all people should understand. Indeed, the parallels between Cassius being hit by the soda can and Detroit being hit by the objects at her performance clearly help to reinforce one of the film’s more subtle points—that there are a number of different ways of selling out, and few ways to avoid it.
Spurned by Detroit and mocked on social media, Cassius remains a star within his company, so much so that he wins an invite to the exclusive (“even Jay and Bey can’t get this invite”) annual party thrown by WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, who often seems to be channeling Jon Hamm’s Donald Draper). At the party (which he attends immediately after leaving Detroit’s problematic performance), Cassius is coerced into a demeaning performance of his own when Lift assumes that Cassius, being black, must also be able to rap. Cassius protests that he really can’t, but Lift and the essentially all-white partygoers insist. His performance begins slowly and awkwardly, then he finally realizes that the only way to succeed is to give them what they want to hear. So he starts rhythmically chanting, “Nigga shit! Nigga shit! Nigga, nigga, nigga shit!” The audience erupts into cheers and applause and starts to chant along with him. The implication is clear: white audiences of rap music think they’re cool for listening to this “nigga shit” (no doubt involving drugs and sex and violence, as well as frequent repetitions of the word “nigga”); meanwhile rappers who comply might further their careers but are also in danger of propagating negative stereotypes about black people. The satire here is thus aimed both at white audiences and their appropriation of black music with little understanding and at black artists who cash in on that lack of understanding in order to further their careers.
Lift seems absolutely clueless about all this and sees no problem with Cash’s performance. Then he takes Cash to his private office to congratulate him on his success in selling the services of WorryFree. However, he also has a secret agenda: he wants to recruit Cassius to come to work for WorryFree directly and to help manage a major new initiative that the company is about to unveil. Before Cash has a chance to hear about this new initiative, he is overtaken by an overwhelming need to urinate, so he staggers off to the bathroom, inadvertently going through the wrong door and discovering some creatures who look like anthropomorphic horses (like a nightmare version of Bojack Horseman), but who seem to be in the throes of genuine agony as a result of this transformation, chained up in stalls and begging Cash to help them.
Cash has, in fact, stumbled into one of the few scenes in the film that seems unequivocally appropriate to a horror movie, essentially a reverse of the agonizing process through which Charles Laughton’s Dr. Moreau transforms animals into humans in Island of Lost Souls. Arguably, this transformation of humans into presumably lower animals is even more horrifying—and perhaps especially so when Cash staggers back to Lift’s office to learn that he has discovered WorryFree’s new initiative in its rawest form: human beings are being chemically transformed into horse-people (“Equisapiens”) with superhuman strength and stamina, so that they can be more productive workers, though sometimes undergoing great suffering in the process.
The full allegorical framework of Sorry to Bother You has now been revealed. WorryFree’s portrayal of indentured workers clearly comments on a number of specific abuses—ranging from slavery, to indentured servitude, to the modern phenomenon of for-profit prisons (where the inmates are used as a source of profit-generating labor power). Indeed, WorryFree’s workers wear prison-like uniforms, and one can clearly read WorryFree as a commentary on the U.S. prison system in general and on the nation’s notoriously high rates of incarceration, especially for black men, suggesting that one reason for this high rate is that life is so hard outside of prison that some people prefer to be imprisoned, just so they can be guaranteed three meals a day and a place to sleep. “Three hots and a cot,” as Cassius’s Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) puts it, employing an expression often used to describe conditions in prison—or the army. But the portrayal of WorryFree is also an even more general commentary on the treatment of workers under capitalism, with the Equisapiens motif merely serving as an exclamation point showing just how far capitalism is willing to go to squeeze greater profits out of its workers. The film is in this sense a broad (and, actually, quite sophisticated) commentary on the general process through which workers are dehumanized under capitalism, reduced to the level of commodities, of profit-generating things.
One thinks here of Michel Foucault’s critique of modern capitalist society as a “carceral” society, in which institutions such as factories, hospitals, and schools operate very much according to the same principles as prisons. Meanwhile, a crucial part of Foucault’s argument is that society at large, outside these institutions, also operates according to these principles. Read through Foucault, one implication of Sorry to Bother You is that even individuals who are not employed by WorryFree suffer much of the same domination and that one of the functions of WorryFree (like the function of the modern prison in our world) is to give people who are not WorryFree employees the illusion that they are free in comparison.
A closer look shows that the film’s whimsical construction of an alternate reality in which capitalism is far more overt in its activities than in our own world is a device designed to create cognitive estrangement that causes us to step back and to re-evaluate the differences between the world of the film and our own world. Sorry to Bother You, in fact, is filled with a number of motifs that further this estrangement effect, some of them quite small, such as Detroit’s funky homemade earrings. In one scene, for example, Sergio begins complaining about his health and then dispenses some medication for himselffrom a figurine of Christ hanging on a cross. It’s an odd and unexpected image that one would not expect to see in the real world, and one might think it is merely intended to produce a laugh. However, within the strongly anti-capitalist matrix of this film, it is well-nigh impossible not see this moment as an echo of the well-known Marxist notion that religion is the opiate of the masses, a notion that has a special place in African American history given the way in which so many black Americans have so often turned to religion for comfort in the light of the difficulties they have faced in the material world.
For those who “get” these moments of cognitive dissonance it will be obvious that the world of the film is not so different from our own world, after all, a realization that makes a central contribution to the effectiveness of Sorry to Bother You as one of the few genuinely radical denunciations of the fundamental workings of the capitalist system to appear in recent American commercial film. Indeed, the film might have been a bit too radical for mainstream American filmgoing audiences. Little wonder, then, that such a visually striking, highly entertaining film, filled with wonderful performances by charismatic actors, only grossed approximately $17.5 million at the U.S. box office.
Perhaps the film hit a little bit too close to home for some Americans, especially as the film extends its critique of the exploitation of labor under capitalism to involve a critique of the manipulation of consumers in our media-based society as well. We see a number of television commercials for WorryFree, for example, and it is clear that these ads are aimed at a target audience whose intellectual level is low indeed. To any thinking viewer, in fact, the commercials simply make clear how truly horrifying WorryFree’s practices are, suggesting that WorryFree doesn’t expect to encounter a lot of thinking viewers—which might explain why Sorry to Bother You, though it got a great deal of media attention and was widely praised by critics, failed to find a genuinely large audience.
Similarly, when Lift finally explains WorryFree’s new initiative to Cash, he does so by showing him a Claymation promotional video, entitled “The New Miracle,” which has, he proudly proclaims, “a lot of production value.” The video begins with a scene reminiscent of the one depicting the discovery of tools (and weapons) by ape-men in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and then proceeds to argue that WorryFree’s Equisapiens program is merely an extension of the way humans have used tools (and other methods) to extend their basic capabilities throughout our subsequent evolution. This is just the next logical step. It’s a clever but specious argument that draws false parallels between things like exercising to get stronger and being given drugs that transform one’s entire body in unnatural ways. Indeed, the video even tips its hand when it announces that the transformation is designed to make humans “stronger, more obedient, more durable, and therefore more efficient and profitable” (my emphasis). It seems a rather damning self-characterization until one realizes that the video is intended not as a recruitment tool for workers but as information for the company’s shareholders—who will presumably now be encouraged to buy even more shares, given the video’s promise that the Equisapiens will make WorryFree “the most profitable corporation in human history.”
The narrator of the Equisapiens video, incidentally, speaks with a British accent, which presumably makes her sound smarter and more authoritative. In one of the many examples of repeated motifs in Sorry to Bother You, this strategy clearly mirrors Detroit’s attempt to impress her “sophisticated” audience by speaking in a similar accent. And both of these examples resemble the attempts of RegalView’s black telemarketers to speak in “white” voices. At the same time, all of these efforts to sound reassuringly white and sophisticated mirror in reverse Cash’s attempt to sound likea rapper from the hood by chanting “nigga shit,” just as they also mirror in reverse the attempts of Cash’s white audience to sound cool by responding so enthusiastically to his ludicrous rap performance.
Of course, such strategies assume that one’s audience is easily duped, which—in the world of Sorry to Bother You—seems to be a pretty good assumption.That the general population in the world of Sorry to Bother You has low critical standards can be seen from the fact that the top-rated television program in the world of the film is a reality show entitled I Got the S**@ Kicked Out of Me, which basically involves contestants undergoing a variety of humiliating experiences and generally getting the shit kicked out of them. The show bears obvious similarities to the program Ow, My Balls!, featured withinMike Judge’s 2006 satirical film Idiocracy, which is, in many ways, probably the single cinematic predecessor with which Sorry to Bother You has the most in common. Both of these mock television programs comment on the low state to which television programming has already sunk in our own world, in which audiences, accustomed to a variety of forms of abuse in their daily lives, enjoy seeing someone else be abused for a change. But this phenomenon also suggests that such programming subtly conditions television audiences to endure abuse without protest when it occurs to them in their own lives, making them pliable dupes of the capitalist system.
In any case, Lift wants Cash to become an Equisapien so that he can be WorryFree’s man on the inside, leading the horse-people in directions dictated by WorryFree. Lift wants Cash to become “the Equisapien Martin Luther King, Jr. But one that we create. One that we control.” Cash has been selected because of his unprecedented success at RegalView—and because he has already demonstrated a willingness to betray his own in order to get what he wants. Lift has a point here. However, in trying to sell the idea to Cash (at gunpoint, no less) he inadvertently causes Cash to see the error of his own ways. At the same time, this scene also makes it unequivocally clear (both to Cash and to viewers of the film) that Lift is an outright psychopath, willing to do anything and everything in the interest of generating greater profits, no matter who gets hurt or how badly. Little wonder, then, that Cash rejects Lift’s proposal, even though it comes with a cash offer of $100,000,000 for a mere five years of service—and the promise that, as an Equisapien, Cash will have a “horse cock.”
Horrified, Cash realizes that, even as a highly-paid member of “management,” he is viewed by RegalView and Worryfree as “another one of their fucking creatures to control and to manipulate.” He attempts to expose the project through the media, though the conventional media refuse to take his warnings seriously. So he resorts to the painful and demeaning process of going on I Got the S**@ Kicked Out of Me, which allows him to show a video he took of the horse people in return for allowing them to beat him up and dip him in shit. Detroit and Left Eye pitch in to help get the message out, while Cash also hits the talk-show circuit. The message does, indeed, get out there, but the news simply causes WorryFree’s stock price to increase at an unprecedented rate, bringing the whole stock market up with it. Fanatical religious groups even begin to celebrate Lift as the second coming of Christ.
Cash realizes that he must take action in the streets, and not merely through the media. He joins forces with the union at RegalView to stop the crossing of the picket lines, leading to a violent confrontation with the police and the hired soldiers of Stackwater. This time the strikers win, as a contingent of the superstrong horse people come to their aid. Cash has indeed become a sort of leader of the Equisapiens, though he has led them to use their superhuman abilities in the fight against capitalist exploitation instead of simply becoming profit-generating machines run by that system. The film thus echoes in a quite direct way the classic Marxist dictum that capitalism cannot be defeated from without, but only from within, only by the proletariat that capitalism itself has produced.
This, of course, is only a small, local victory in a much broader struggle, but it’s a start. If people see that the forces of official capitalist power can be defeated on a local level, perhaps they will begin to believe that something can be done on a larger scale. Cassius and Detroit even get back together. The film proper ends, though, on an ominous note, as Cash realizes that Lift has tricked him into snorting the “fusing catalyst” and begins to transform into an Equisapien. This is a film that knows that the struggle against capitalism will be a difficult one and that there will be no easy victories. At the same time, Cash’s transformation can be viewed in a positive light, as a sign that he is at last truly joining the workers in their struggle. In any case, a quick postscript returns to the mode of hope, as an enraged Equisapien (probably the transformed Cash) bursts into Lift’s mansion, seeking revenge.
A quick look at the background of writer/director Boots Riley explains why Sorry to Bother You is so unusually perceptive and sophisticated in its critique of capitalism. Writer-director Riley, after all, has a long history of pursuing such critiques. Born into a family of social justice organizers, Riley became interested in leftist political causes at a young age and had joined the Progressive Labor Party by the age of fifteen. By that time he was living in Oakland (an alternate reality version of which provides the setting for Sorry to Bother You). While working at a variety of jobs there (including a stint as a telemarketer), Riley became a founding member (and the lead vocalist) of the hip hop group The Coup, which has released a number of successful albums, including 1998’s Steal This Album (whose title refers to radical youth leader Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 book Steal This Book) and the controversial Party Music (2001), which contains tracks such as “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO.” Their 2006 album Pick a Bigger Weapon received considerable acclaim, and their 2012 album Sorry to Bother You provides much of the soundtrack for the film of the same title. Nothing, meanwhile, captures the ending of that film better than the song “Guillotine” from the album, which contains a perfect caption, addressed to abusive capitalists, for the film’s last moment: “We got the guillotine—you better run.”
In 2009 Riley teamed with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello to release the self-titled debut album of their new group Street Sweeper Social Club. Both of Riley’s bands remain active, though he has always made it clear that his musical work was merely a part of his larger political project, which concentrates on exposing the abuses perpetrated by the capitalist system in America. Sorry to Bother You, his first film, is thus simply a logical progression in his project to use popular culture (conventionally thought of as an important tool of capitalist domination) as a weapon in the struggle against capitalism. His career thus parallels that of Cash in the sense that Cash turns the Equisapiens program, intended as an unprecedented tool of capitalist domination, into an important resource for resistance to that domination.
In the same manner, Sorry to Bother You exhibits a number of the typical characteristics of postmodernism (the artistic mode that Fredric Jameson has described as “the cultural logic of late capitalism”), but at least attempts to turn its postmodernist aesthetic strategies against capitalism. The film is highly fragmented, with its main narrative frequently interrupted by inserted television commercials, television programs, musical and other performances, and so on. It borrows imagery and styles from a variety of predecessors, lacing them together with an editing style that is reminiscent of music videos. It employs a number of visual effects that eschew realistic representation and break down the barrier between fantasy and reality—as when Cash makes calls for RegalView and then is shown as if he is being physically projected into the homes of those whom he is calling. Yet all of these postmodernist motifs are deployed in a relentless critique of the capitalist system and its exploitation of both its workers and its consumers. Just how effective this critique might be remains to be seen, and one might argue that it is merely a case of preaching to the choir. Perhaps, though, the entertainment value of this particular sermon might just win some new members for the choir, encouraged by the extreme, defamiliarizing images of the film at last to see capitalism for what it really is. And perhaps galvanizing that enlarged choir into action just might be the start of something much, much bigger.
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Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth. New York: Rinehart &
 The Second International, formed a meeting in Paris on July 14, 1889, remained the primary international organization for the promotion of socialism and workers’ rights until 1916. Among other things, the Second International marked the emergence of Marx as the leading thinker whose work drove the socialist movement. It also united workers around the globe in a concerted effort that, among other things, provided a central impetus for both governments and capitalists to institute reforms in areas such as public education and working-class suffrage, as well as the beginnings of modern social safety-net systems such as the kind that would grow into the Social Security system in the U.S. The Second International also established May 1 as International Workers’ Day and March 8 as International Women’s Day, holidays that are still observed around the world today. It finally fell apart in the midst of World War I, when rivalries among nations began to supersede international working-class solidarity.
 Paul Wells tellingly refers to this phenomenon as the “McDonaldisation” of the slasher film (93–97).
 Valerie Wee has suggested that the trilogy as a whole ultimately moves beyond postmodernism into the realm of what she calls “hyperpostmodernism.” Wee acknowledges the identification by numerous scholars of the Scream films with postmodernism, but goes further to suggest that “the Scream franchise is distinctive, and it represents a later stage in postmodernism’s evolution, with a significant number of Scream‘s postmodern elements signaling an advanced or heightened stage of postmodernism” (47)
 One might also compare here Tim Burton’s transformation of the Frankenstein story into the stuff of (rather dark, but quite funny) children’s animated film in Frankenweenie, a film that was released in 2012 but has its roots in a short made by Burton back in 1984, just as horror comedy was getting its postmodern footing.
 This “scandal” was highlighted by the critique of horror comics and the like as a threat to the moral fiber of America’s youth contained in Dr. Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent. This scandal led to the establishment of the industry self-censorship of the Comics Code Authority and to the virtual extinction of horror comics for many years.For more on the scandal, see Hajdu.
 For more on “San Junipero,” see Daraiseh and Booker.
 Initially, The Lost Boys was intended to be pitched to an even younger audience, somewhat along the lines of The Goonies (1985), directed by Richard Donner, who had originally been tabbed to direct The Lost Boys. When Donner (who still produced The Lost Boys) moved on to other projects, Schumacher took over and decided to pitch the film to a slightly older audience and to go for more sex appeal.
 Hughes’ movies were, of course, the definitive teen films of the 1980s. The Lost Boys includes a number of links to the films of Hughes, in addition to the casting of Gertz. For example, Sam (presented in the film as the ideal young-teen consumer) tries to personalize his room in Grandpa’s house with movie posters, including one of Molly Ringwald, probably the central actor in the Hughes canon. Interestingly enough, the credits at the end of the Lost Boys identify this poster as a still from The Breakfast Club (1985), perhaps the most important Hughes teen film. However, I believe this still is actually from Sixteen Candles. Sam’s posters also include one from the film Reform School Girls, a 1986 spoof of the women-in-prison genre. A final poster features a shot of Rob Lowe, who had starred in Schumacher’s own teen film St. Elmo’s Fire in 1985. Lowe did not appear in a Hughes film, but he was a central member (along with Ringwald and others from the Hughes films) of the “Brat Pack,” a group of young actors who dominated teen movies in the 1980s.
 This performance by the buff and oiled Cappello has become part of the film’s cult appeal. But the flashy performance is pure spectacle, all style and no substance, representing precisely the kind of superficial, consumer-oriented pop culture of which The Lost Boys seems to want to be critical. Meanwhile, the crowd at the concert follows Cappello in mesmerized rapture, somewhat like the crowds at Hitler’s notorious Nuremburg rallies.
 The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the most important album of 1967, becoming, among other things, the first rock album to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It was also a huge commercial success that triggered a highly successful merchandising campaign in which eager consumers gobbled up album-related items such as the jacket Laddie is wearing, which is featured on the album’s iconic cover. It is not clear, therefore, that this album really functions as a bulwark against consumerism.
 The film does not indicate the actual ages of the vampire characters, who might be quite old. But Max is clearly coded as representative of the pop culture of the 1960s, with the younger vampires representing the contemporary culture of the 1980s.
 On the other hand, Sam is also an aficionado of comic books, though his knowledge and tastes run more toward the much more mainstream (and commercial) Superman comics as opposed to the more marginal horror comics preferred by the Frogs. And he seems far too fashion-conscious to be a true rebel. Thus, when the Frog brothers first see him, they label him a “fashion victim” and suggest that he might want to check out the frozen yogurt bar (which would have been a trendy—but trendy in a very mainstream way—back in 1987).
 The presence of Barrymore, a well-established star, still lent a certain prestige to the film. Ironically, she is probably now known as much for this small role as for any of her starring roles.
 One of the most important theorizations of this idea resides within the notion of “hyperreality,” proposed by French thinker Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007). Hyperreality, a key element of postmodernity, is the condition that occurs when representations of reality are produced at such a pace that it becomes impossible to distinguish between images of reality and reality itself.
 The casting of an actor who resembles Depp was probably not accidental, given that Depp got his start as an actor in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. Ulrich, meanwhile, has often been compared with Depp. See Hoban.
 This phenomenon is part of a larger movement toward entertainment culture in general, in which American consumers, especially younger ones, should somehow be entertaining. One of the classic early descriptions of this entertainment culture is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, telling first published in 1985, in the heart of the Reagan era and in the midst of the slasher-film franchise explosion.
 Screenwriter Kevin Williamson, whose ideas provided the original impetus behind Scream, has stated that much of his initial inspiration came from Halloween, a fact that can be seen in the prominent role played by Halloween within Scream. Williamson, incidentally, also wrote the screenplay for Scream 2 and Scream 4, as well as I Know What You Did Last Summer. He also created the television series The Vampire Diaries.
 The final sequence takes advantage of the opportunity to sneak in other allusions as well. Early in the sequence, Billy pretends to be killed by Ghostface, covering himself with fake blood. Later, he identifies his fake blood as made of “corn syrup: same stuff they used for pig’s blood in Carrie.”
 At the time, Long was best known as the spokesperson for Apple, Inc. in their series of “I’m a Mac” television commercials. In a moment of postmodern self-referentiality, Long is seen using Apple products at several points in the film.
 The university scenes were shot on the campus of California State University, Northridge (in Los Angeles), though the university where Dalton works is unnamed in the film.
 The other films McClanahan discusses are Mother’s Day (2010), Crawlspace (2013), and the Hong Kong film Dream Home (2010).
 This is especially true of the original theatrical release version of the film; it is currently available on video in both that version and in an unrated director’s cut, the latter of which contains some brief, over-the-top material that was deemed too extreme for theatrical audiences.
 The term “gypsy,” often used with derogatory connotations, is a corruption of “Egyptian”; it came to be applied to the Romani people in the Middle Ages, when many in Europe thought (wrongly) that they were wandering Egyptians.
 On the obvious impact of the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft on the conception of these Ancient Ones—and on The Cabin in the Woods in general, see Lockett.
 See Rob Dean for a discussion of many of the film’s numerous horror film references.
 On generational conflict in The Cabin in the Woods, see Renner.
 One might compare here T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), a brilliant and unprecedented poem about the fact that cultural conditions in the modern world are so debased that it is no longer possible to create good poetry.
 King’s allegorical reading, incidentally, aligns The Cabin in the Woods with torture porn, a subgenre to which most critics have seen the film as opposed, partly because of Joss Whedon’s expressed distaste for it. For him, however, both Cabin and films such as Hostel address the fact that, under neo-liberal late capitalism, the human body has become a “consumable object.” For King, “torture porn films are a response to these larger historical anxieties about the diffuse power structures of multinational capitalism and the way that bodies are circulated as commodities worldwide (the global sex trade or the forced movement of laborers being paradigmatic examples).”
 While noting that the slasher subgenre is the one with which It Follows has the most in common, Joshua Grimm notes that it has affinities with other horror subgenres as well. For example, he notes that the deadly entity in the film has much in common with zombies, while also comparing it with the supernatural entity Sadako in Ringu (1998).
 Suvin’s discussion of cognitive estrangement (which has played a founding role in the history of serious academic criticism of science fiction) is included in his book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979).
 Later, we see Jay (and Greg) attending English class, as Laurie Strode had done in a scene in Halloween, though Jay and Greg are apparently in a college classroom. Here, Jay’s English teacher reads from T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a poem about sexual insecurity and the loneliness and alienation resulting from life in the modern world. This scene similarly asks us to wonder how Eliot’s poem might be relevant to the film—which certainly involves a curse that makes fulfilling intimate relationships nearly impossible, thus resonating with Eliot’s theme.
 This scene was shot in Detroit’s Redford Theatre, which opened in 1928. The theater is still in use, so this setting does not necessarily indicate anything about the time frame of the film, other than that it appears to be taking place some time after 1928, which is obvious.
 One of the rundown locations emphasized in Jarmusch’s film is Detroit’s once-impressive Packard plant, currently under renovation but once a key symbol of Detroit’s decay. Interestingly, the scenes of Jay in the wheelchair were apparently shot not in the Northville Psychiatric Hospital, but in the Packard plant.
 In another scene, as they again travel into a rundown area of Detroit, Yara muses on the fact that, when she was a little girl, her parents wouldn’t let her go south of Eight Mile, the road that serves as a line of demarcation between the affluent suburbs and the dangerous city of Detroit. The radical disparities that exist within the city in the film are very real in Detroit.
 Strikebreakers who cross the picket line are able to do so because paramilitary security forces hired by the company brutally clear the way for them. The forces are supplied by a company called “Stackwater,” in an obvious reference to the Blackwater organization (now, oddly enough, renamed “Academi,” in an apparent attempt to distance itself from its negative reputation). Blackwater has supplied mercenaries to the CIA since its founding in 2003. In 2007, the company received considerable negative publicity when several of its employees were convicted of killing fourteen Iraqi civilians without justification.
 This remark presumably refers to the publicity gained by pop singer Grande after an Islamic terrorist detonated a shrapnel-laden suicide bomb, killing twenty-three people at England’s Manchester arena as they were leaving a concert she had just performed.
 The film here critiques certain negative aspects of hip hop culture from within, as it were. Both Stanfield and (especially) Riley are accomplished rap artists in their own rights, and both perform on the album’s soundtrack. Riley’s hip hop work with the group The Coup, in particular, serves as a politically responsible antithesis to the kind of degraded rap music satirized in this scene.
 This strategy has generally been associated, by critics such as Darko Suvin, with science fiction. Indeed, Sorry to Bother You has been more widely characterized as science fiction than as horror. However, see the previous section in this volume (on It Follows) for a discussion of this concept in relation to horror film.
 This video is attributed to “Michel Dongry,” in an obvious reference to French director Michel Gondry. Indeed, the video was initially intended to be attributed to Gondry himself, as a sort of tribute—which seems appropriate given that much of Sorry to Bother You seems to have been influenced by Gondry’s somewhat surrealistic style. This video, in particular, seeks to capture Gondry’s trademark combination of whimsy and surrealism. Lift could presumably have afforded any director he wanted, so the choice of Gondry is something of a compliment, even if a problematic one, given the purpose of the video. Given that purpose, perhaps it was no surprise that Gondry and his representatives objected to the use of his name, whereupon Riley opted to change the name as a parodic retort.
 Riley presumably has Lift mention of King, not to criticize King himself, but to highlight the way in which mainstream America has subsequently heroized King for his nonviolent message, while at the same time ignoring (or even demonizing) more radical black leaders, such as Malcolm X,
 The depiction of Lift here echoes the conclusions of the 2003 documentary film The Corporation. Here, the filmmakers examine corporate behavior in light of the legal tradition of regarding corporations essentially as people, with the same rights as actual people. They conclude that, were an actual human to behave the way corporations typically do, he or she would be clinically diagnosed as a psychopath.