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5 Return of the Repressed: Euro Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

Ian Olney Indiana University Press ePub

EURO HORROR CINEMA IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CULTURE

As we scan the landscape of mainstream cinema in the United States today, it becomes easier to understand why Euro horror movies like The House by the Cemetery and Troll 2 currently hold such allure. For all its commitment to crowd-pleasing spectacle, contemporary Hollywood cinema simply does not offer audiences the same opportunities for performative spectatorship that Euro horror does. Bland, safe, and boring – despite their emphasis on nonstop action, celebrity actors, and flashy special effects – Hollywood films lack the postmodern qualities that afford Euro horror fans the chance to try out different points of view and play with a range of often transgressive subject positions. Moreover, rather than presenting itself as a partner in dialogue and prompting the viewer’s active participation in a conversation, the dominant cinema is largely invested in masking its gaze and colonizing ours. It denies the intersubjectivity that defines the cinematic experience by presenting itself simply as a vehicle for our entertainment and encouraging us to just go along for the ride. In short, it is a form of disposable entertainment intended to be consumed and quickly forgotten, a roller-coaster ride designed to thrill audiences without asking them to think too much or feel too deeply.

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7 The Whip and the Body: The S&M Horror Film

Ian Olney Indiana University Press ePub

THE S&M HORROR FILM

Mario Bava’s kinky gothic melodrama La frusta e il corpo (The Whip and the Body, 1963) stars Christopher Lee as Kurt Menliff, a sadistic aristocrat who returns to his family’s ancestral home after a period of banishment to reclaim his patrimony as the eldest son of the ailing Count Menliff (Gustavo De Nardo) and to prevent his younger brother, Christian (Tony Kendall), from marrying Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), Kurt’s former lover. The sudden reappearance of Kurt, who was exiled by the Count years earlier, throws the Menliff household into turmoil. He terrorizes his family from the moment he arrives, badgering his dying father to write him back into his will and tempting Nevenka to resume their violent, sadomasochistic love affair. Kurt’s reign of terror is brought to a shockingly abrupt conclusion when he is murdered one night by an unseen assailant. Each member of the family is a suspect in his murder, since they all had ample motive; questions of guilt and innocence are soon forgotten, though, as strange lights start to appear at night in the windows of the mausoleum where Kurt’s body is interred and Nevenka begins to have visions of a ghostly Kurt entering her chambers to whip her as she lies in bed – visions that are seemingly proven real when muddy boot prints are found on the floor of her room in the morning. Finally, a desperate Christian, believing that his brother has indeed returned from the grave to further torment them, opens Kurt’s coffin and burns the remains he finds there along with the infamous whip. As he is returning to the house, however, he notices a figure dressed in Kurt’s clothes walking ahead of him. Christian confronts this mysterious person, only to find to his astonishment and horror that it is Nevenka. Fleeing from Christian, she locks herself in a cell inside the mausoleum, where she speaks to Kurt as if he were alive, leading Christian and the audience to understand that she murdered Kurt in an outburst of violent passion and then, regretting her act, “absorbed” his personality and began to carry on a double life as “Kurt” and “Nevenka.” As Christian watches helplessly, Nevenka embraces an invisible Kurt and cries, “I love you, Kurt, only you!” before stabbing herself to death with a dagger. In the final moments of the film, the director cuts to a shot of Kurt’s corpse, still burning in the coffin, and – as the film’s lush orchestral score swells – slowly zooms in to a close-up of his whip, which twists like a living thing as it is consumed by the flames.

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2 Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: The Academic Case against Euro Horror Cinema

Ian Olney Indiana University Press ePub

THE ACADEMIC CASE AGAINST EURO HORROR CINEMA

To begin, I argue that Euro horror’s liminal presence in Film Studies is partly due to the fact that when making decisions about which movies to analyze, scholars continue – consciously or not – to rely upon traditional aesthetic criteria. Although ideological rather than aesthetic issues have been the primary focus of film theory and criticism since the 1970s, the old notion that a film must possess some kind of “artistic value” to be worthy of study has endured. The persistence of this notion has stalled the scholarly exploration of some forms of popular cinema despite the powerful influence of Cultural Studies in academia. In particular, as Paul Watson contends, it has led to a pervasive (if largely unspoken and perhaps unrecognized) bias against the exploitation film, that “blatantly commercial product, sold on the basis of its apparent revelatory qualities, and designed to ensure maximum possible return from the minimum investment and resources” (76):

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4 Playing Dead, Take Two: Euro Horror Film Reception

Ian Olney Indiana University Press ePub

EURO HORROR FILM RECEPTION

Postmodern filmmaking practices provide part of the explanation for the performative spectatorship fostered by Euro horror cinema, but not a full account. For that, we need to consider the uniquely performative ways in which Euro horror movies are now being watched in the United States. To a certain extent, film viewing always involves an element of performativity. In her phenomenological account of the cinematic experience, Vivian Sobchack appropriates Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of the “intertwining” or “chiasmus” of subject and object that takes place at the moment of perception in order to argue that watching a movie should be thought of not as an act, but rather as a dialogue that involves the audience and the film as equal participants. Writing that a movie “is as much a viewing subject as it is . . . a visible and viewed object” (51), Sobchack demonstrates that spectatorship is necessarily “a dialogical and dialectical engagement of two viewing subjects who also exist as visible objects” (52). Despite the fact that there are “always two embodied acts of vision at work in the theater, two embodied views constituting the intelligibility and significance of the film experience” (53), though, we often fail to recognize this, missing entirely the “dynamic activity of viewing that is engaged in by both the film and the spectator, each as viewing subjects” (45). Rather than treating the movies we watch as partners in dialogue, we tend to see them as events to which we must play passive witnesses. As a rule, the “returned gaze” (Dixon, It Looks at You 2) of cinema goes unmet.

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1 Academic Hot Spots and Blind Spots: Horror Film Studies and Euro Horror Cinema

Ian Olney Indiana University Press ePub

HORROR FILM STUDIES AND EURO HORROR CINEMA

There has been an explosion of interest in horror cinema among film scholars in recent years; in the first decade of the twenty-first century especially, the genre received unprecedented attention in the field of Film Studies. Perhaps the most visible sign of the current scholarly fascination with horror cinema is the record number of books on the subject being published by academic presses in the United States and abroad. Scores of monographs and edited volumes on seemingly every aspect of the genre, from its nature and history to its cultural and ideological dimensions to its notable directors and producers to its reception and fandom, now crowd the shelves. There is even a growing number of texts on horror cinema geared toward the film student – introductory guidebooks that offer overviews of the genre, as well as critical anthologies that collect the most important and influential essays on the subject – indicating that horror film studies has truly arrived as an area of academic inquiry. While the extraordinary number of books on horror cinema available today may be the most visible sign of scholarly interest in the genre, it is not the only one. Hundreds of articles on the horror film have appeared in a wide range of highly respected academic journals. Many of these journals have devoted entire issues to horror, and at least one – Horror Studies, a periodical published in the United Kingdom – has dedicated itself exclusively to the exploration of the genre. One might also point to the countless papers on horror cinema delivered at conferences sponsored by professional organizations like the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and the Popular Culture and American Culture associations. And this boom in horror film scholarship seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future: according to the Dissertation Abstracts Online database, dozens of doctoral dissertations on horror cinema were submitted at universities all over the world during the first decade of the 2000s, suggesting that a new generation of scholars with a substantial investment in the genre has now entered the field.

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