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The Horror Film Project


©2019, by M. Keith Booker

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.[1]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.[2] 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.[3]

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[4]. 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.

Found-Footage Horror

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.


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[1] Paul Wells tellingly refers to this phenomenon as the “McDonaldisation” of the slasher film (93–97).

[2] 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)

[3] 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.

[4] 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.