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"Subversive Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present" Book Review

Written by Robert Gold

Published by McFarland

Subversive Cinema Jon Towlson Poster

Written by Jon Towlson
2014, 246 pages, Reference
Released on March 20th, 2014


The horror genre has long been the scapegoat for politicians, film censors and pillars of the community looking to push an agenda, religious or otherwise. Subversive cinema excels when it comes to questioning authority or pushing the envelope of what is acceptable to decent society. What drives filmmakers to deliberately lace their pictures with content that is sure to draw fire? Is it the simple need to offend for the sake of offense or is it something deeper? The horror genre is a platform where messages can be shouted out loud instead of whispered in classrooms, where shocking images are gloriously projected onto 40-foot screens. When is a monster not just a monster and what does it mean when a subgenre takes over the industry? These are only but a few of the questions raised in Jon Towlson's spectacular new collection of essays: Subversive Cinema: Counterculteral Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present.

Motion pictures have long reflected the views of popular society and if horror proved to be the legitimate reaction to war or injustice, then so be it. Genre pictures came under scrutiny almost immediately however, when films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) introduced the idea of the average man being forced to perform unspeakable acts through authoritarian manipulation. Years later, in the wake of World War II, countless creature features delivered monsters fueled by radiation, determined to destroy America in the age of the atomic nightmare. When disheartened soldiers returned home from Vietnam only to find a corrupt government that could not be trusted, this launched a new wave of anti-authority pictures. The twenty-first century was ushered in with a rise in terrorist attacks, and filmmakers responded with films like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005); giving birth to the so-called “torture porn” subgenre. Breaking down the history of Western cinema by decade, Towlson explores twentieth-century film and follows it into the new millennium.

Directors Tod Browning (Freaks, 1932) and James Whale (Frankenstein, 1931) came under fire for creating monster movies in which audiences were expected to empathize with the creatures presented as victims of a brutal society. Browning challenged the eugenics movement, once popular before Hitler rose to power, by infusing a subtext of the horrors of war inflicted on the human body. He also raised questions concerning the emotional impact of the Great Depression on the working class, and how these victims were perceived as somehow lesser individuals. Whale took things further by injecting his masterpiece with themes of repressed homosexuality that pushed the limits of what was acceptable at that time. Film censors were offended by a key sequence in Frankenstein involving the fate of a child and removed elements against the director's protests. In so doing they inadvertently altered audience perceptions of the monster, and the picture's message was tainted until the footage was restored almost fifty years later.

The 1940s films of legendary producer Val Lewton shed light on women's issues and repressed sexual elements of society in movies like Cat People (1942), while Curse of the Cat People (1944) goes a bit further and tackles childhood schizophrenia. Following World War II, a rise in atomic panic resulted in giant creature features like Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955). Later, the counter-culture movement of the 1960s welcomed such anti-authority pictures as Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968), in which Vincent Price rises to power as an evil government official using fear tactics to manipulate and abuse the local citizens. George Romero made quite the impression with Night of the Living Dead (1968), and his social commentary on issues ranging from race relations to the destruction of the family unit have sparked discussion for nearly five decades.

Much of Towlson's book focuses on the cinematic output of the 1970s and the influence of the post-Vietnam era on “modern” American horror movies. Tobe Hooper's seminal classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972) both rebel against a wave of sanitized violence in contemporary cinema and challenge the true meaning of family values. George Romero's The Crazies (1973) explores government malfeasance in the wake of the scandals of the Nixon administration, while Bob Clark addressed the plight of war vets returning home to a country that was less than welcoming in Deathdream (1974). Taboos were shattered with the advent of psycho-sexual thrillers like Pete Walker's House of Whipcord (1974) or David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975). Jeff Lieberman's Blue Sunshine (1978) took aim at the counterculture drug movement, while Romero returned to take shots at rampant consumerism with his masterpiece Dawn of the Dead (1978).

If 1970s cinema was heavy on anti-government messages, the next decade rode in on a wave of economic distress as the gap between rich and poor continued to expand. Ronald Reagan's economic reform system divided the nation into a land of haves and have nots. The 1980s saw the rise of the slasher movie, a subgenre where countless young adults were hunted down and slaughtered before they even had a chance to graduate from school. Towlson then turns his focus to a pair of films that look at the situation from the villain's perspective as he compares and contrasts Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and American Psycho (2000) as an indictment of the Reagan presidency. While the former was shot during the period and the latter takes a retro approach, both tackle the difficult issues of what makes the psycho tick and are opposite sides of the same coin. One surprising oversight in the book is the total absence of the work of Clive Barker, an artist who challenged moral authority with both Hellraiser (1987) and Nightbreed (1990).

As the new millennium approached, the backlash against greedy materialism sparked a trend in cinema embracing the notion of “more is more”, leading to the splatstick movement with its unprecedented degree of onscreen cartoon violence as a cathartic release. Splatstick's roots date back to the 1980s with over-the-top images found in the works of directors like Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead 2) and Frank Henenlotter (Brain Damage), and the early films of Peter Jackson (Bad Taste and Dead Alive). Elaborate make-up effects were employed not just for gross-out value, but to drive home a message of excess. These films also contained deeper messages, as the tropes of masculine authority were frequent targets, as in Brian Yuzna's Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) and his satirical Society (1989).

With the turn of the century, the party effectively came to an end as the George W. Bush administration ushered in a fresh wave of patriotism, conservative family values and encouraged abstinence. Clean, moral living was subverted once again with the rise of the previously mentioned “torture porn” subgenre where terrible things happen to innocent people, but this was not the only cinematic rebuttal. As glossy torture cashed in at the box office, filmmakers like the Soska sisters (American Mary, 2012), Lucky McKee (The Woman, 2011), Mitchell Lichtenstein (Teeth, 2007) and Steven Sheil (Mum & Dad, 2008) rejected the obvious knee-jerk reaction to terrorist activities by choosing instead to focus on traditional themes like gender relations and the horrors within the family unit as a way to catch audiences off guard. In so doing, they managed to subvert the mainstream, studio-financed “subversive” output and create a new kind of counterculture movement.

Jon Towlson's look at the history of subversive cinema is a thoughtful study on a century's worth of deliberate artistic choices made by filmmakers to include a message that upsets the status quo. This highly entertaining collection of essays is informative and engaging and is easily recommended to anyone with a serious interest in how a frequently-dismissed genre often challenges traditional values and offers insight into aspects of the human condition that are occasionally set aside or pushed down for personal gain. It is possible that more is being read into these pictures than the directors intended, that sometimes a monster really is just a monster. The possibility of an ulterior message opens a dialogue that will generate fresh ideas and possibly inspire future filmmakers to challenge perceptions of what is subversive.


Overall: 4.5 Star Rating Cover
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About The Author
Robert Gold
Author: Robert Gold
Staff Reviewer - USA
Robert's favorite genres include horror (foreign and domestic), Asian cinema and pornography (foreign and domestic). His ability to seek out and enjoy shot on video (SOV) horror movies is unmatched. His love of films with a budget under $100,000 is unapologetic.
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