It's Only a Movie?
Cutting to the Heart of Horror with Professor Adam Lowenstein
Speaking on behalf of decent society, a recent IMDB message-poster sketched the basic terms of the so-called torture porn debate in his Hostel Part II-inspired headline: "What is happening to us?"
As you may know, the latest Splat Pack sequel's many horrors include that of a geeky young woman being hung upside down naked and ritually tortured to death with long knives. Scary times, these. No surprise that the online moralist—who imagined karma catching up with writer-director Eli Roth—was severely beaten in a virtual torrent of fanboy deathblows.
Whatever is "happening to us," horror is unmistakably the genre du jour—this despite the fact that Part II's sixth-place showing at the box-office last weekend compelled commentators to proclaim, many with glee, the genre's violent demise. Hasty (and brutal) judgments abound, but horror scholar Adam Lowenstein, an associate professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh, prefers to take his time with this frenzied genre, arguing that it's "still too soon" to determine whether the Splat Pack films engage the "post-9/11 moment" as meaningfully as the classic American shockers of the '70s—The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, et al.—addressed the Vietnam War and other atrocities of their era.
On Sunday at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, Lowenstein will join critics Nathan Lee, Maitland McDonagh, and Joshua Rothkopf in a panel discussion of horror, moderated by the museum's assistant curator Livia Bloom and held as part of "It's Only a Movie: Horror Films From the 1970s to Today." Organized by Bloom, this ingeniously timed and sprawling (or splattering?) retrospective includes some 30-odd shorts and features, beginning on Saturday with The American Nightmare, director Adam Simon's brilliant documentary about the blood ties of '70s horror and history, in which Lowenstein appears as a forceful talking head.
On the eve of the MoMI series and the release of the Hostel sequel, Lowenstein was gracious enough to talk at length about horror and the myriad issues it raises. By way of extending the discussion further, the professor and I welcome your comments—even, uh, the brutal ones.
City Pages: Your book Shocking Representation [published in 2005] ends in the aftermath of 9/11. Would you agree that, after 9/11, if not the 2000 presidential election, American horror fans were correct to have seen the new wave of horror coming?
Adam Lowenstein: If you look back over the entire history of horror, you find many examples of how horror breeds during times of social crisis, how it breeds in a particularly powerful way. The films of the Weimar era of German cinema, for example, can certainly be read as responses to World War I. But at the same time, I would never want to make the claim that it's only during these times of historical trauma that horror exists—because horror never really goes away. There are times when the genre is more under the radar or less under the radar, but horror itself, as a genre, is pretty much constant. It may well be that moments of social crisis act not just to induce films to get made, but to cause us to pay particular attention to the genre. I wouldn't want to make it a strict cause-and-effect relationship: "We need 9/11 in order to have a wave of horror films," that sort of thing. But there's certainly a powerful connection between the mood of the new films and the mood of the nation. And I think that kind of connection is one that only becomes crystal clear over the course of time. In a lot of ways, I think it's still too soon to evaluate comprehensively whether these films of the post-9/11 moment are digging into their context of social crisis as deeply as the films of the Vietnam War era did.
CP: I imagine you're looking at the new films. What do you make of them tentatively?
Lowenstein: I'm very intrigued by them. My general sense is that the new films may not strike us as being quite so powerfully tied to their historical moment as films like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Last House on the Left were tied to theirs. But the important thing to remember is that critics of the [late '60s and early '70s] didn't think those films were powerfully tied to their historical moment either.
CP: In Shocking Representation, you illustrate that point by looking at the initial reaction to Night of the Living Dead.
Lowenstein: Yes. I think of that film as a crucial benchmark in this kind of discussion. [Director George] Romero himself resisted for many years the idea of reading the film as any kind of social or political allegory, and of reading Ben, the African American protagonist, as a kind of stand-in for Martin Luther King. Romero had written, shot, and completed the film before King's assassination. But certainly the film gained critical attention after King's assassination, and after the film was paired in double-features with a slavery drama by Herbert Biberman called Slaves. It wasn't until two years after its initial release that Night of the Living Dead had gained the kind of critical reputation that we associate with the film today.
CP: Joe Dante [director of The Howling and Homecoming] doesn't hesitate to call the new films "Abu Ghraib movies."
Lowenstein: I wouldn't buy that right off the bat. But at the same time, I hold open the possibility that, 10 or 15 years from now, these movies absolutely will look like Abu Ghraib movies. I really am a firm believer in the notion that the meaning we make of films is a kind of negotiation between the intentions of the filmmaker, the interpretations of critics and audiences, and the influence of history. Reading Night of the Living Dead as a film that's powerfully related to its moment during the Vietnam War is an absolutely correct reading of the film. The fact that this reading wasn't available to the filmmakers or the audience during its initial release doesn't make that reading any less valid.
CP: It seems to me that the global market is one of the things that makes the new films very different from the '70s films. In a global context, Hostel, for example, becomes particularly rich—in commercial terms, certainly, but also in thematic terms, because of how it's interpreted differently abroad. Eli Roth says that in Slovakia, Hostel plays as a comedy, which makes sense: "Our" fear of "their" loathing would naturally play for laughs outside America. Here, the film seems to play more as horror—but of course it's the exact same movie. It's almost as though the new films are forced to take a broader, more inclusive view because of their commercial responsibility as exports, so that, in the best cases, like Hostel, they end up adopting these other layers of meaning as well.
Lowenstein: I think this is a really interesting angle to pursue. In addition to Hostel, you could look at the American remake of The Grudge, which defies the general trend of American remakes by retaining the original film's Japanese setting and using that setting very interestingly. I think a number of the new films suggest that the rest of the world doesn't appreciate America in the way that Americans had assumed—certainly not in the way that the American characters in the films assume when they go off to Europe and treat it as their playground until it turns out to be their torture chamber. The new films are plugged into a different sense in America of what is "safe" and "unsafe," of what counts as "home" and what counts as "abroad." They tap into the dawning sense that our place in the world is not as secure as we had hoped and assumed it would be. America, of course, is not the center of the world—and neither is America the center of horror. I'm happy to see that the [MoMI] series is including films from Italy and France and Japan and Korea. But the series does place the American films at the center of the map—and I think there are other ways to draw the map.
CP: What are some of the ways you'd draw it?
Lowenstein: Well, the explosion of horror in Asia is quite significant—more so than the series allows by including only The Host [from South Korea] and Ichi the Killer [from Japan]. The Host is interesting in relation to the SARS outbreak in Asia as well as the presence of U.S. forces in Korea over many decades, and what that presence has meant for democratization in that country. In terms of the Japanese films, I think it's unfortunate that Kiyoshi Kurosawa—one of the best directors working in any genre, in any country—doesn't have a film in the series. A single series can never cover everything, I guess. But Japan is important. There, the golden age of horror—with films such as The Ring, [Kurosawa's] Pulse, The Grudge, and Audition—came after a severe economic downturn in the early '90s, a period of great self-questioning in Japan, one not dissimilar from the Vietnam War and post-9/11 periods in America.
CP: And how about the export of the films? What do you make of that?
Lowenstein: I think The Ring is especially intriguing in that connection, because it's basically about a media virus—one that spreads from person to person and country to country through the media. Whether it's the Japanese Ring or the American remake, the film is not only about media virus, but, in a certain way, it is a virus!
CP: I don't know whether the extreme self-consciousness of the new American films makes them more valuable as exports, but it certainly sets them apart from the American films of the '70s. Where Romero, as you say, resisted a political reading of his film in '68, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie are calculating the reactions to their movies very carefully before they shoot a single frame. Do you see that as having a significant bearing on the films and what they mean?
Lowenstein: Sure, yes. Like any genre, horror has evolved. It has gotten leaner and meaner—and smarter, too, in some ways. What strikes me about the films of Eli Roth and Rob Zombie—and I'll say this with the caveat that they're both young directors and have a lot of films ahead of them, so it's a little premature to pass judgment right now—is that they're so confidently styled. With only a few films under their belt, these directors really know their way around the genre—and their way around film technique—in an impressive way. The question is: To what end? With Roth, I see a genuine progression from Cabin Fever  to Hostel . I like both of those films, but Cabin Fever seems much more locked in certain ways—locked into a sort of winking, merely clever relationship to Last House and Texas Chain Saw—whereas Hostel seems more able to engage its own set of concerns. Rob Zombie's films, though, seem stuck in adoration.
CP: His new film is a remake of Halloween.
Lowenstein: Right—and that doesn't exactly fill me with excitement. Still, I think it's important not to rush to judgment and say that, for example, Rob Zombie is nothing like Wes Craven because Craven and other directors of the '70s were "originals." What people forget is that Night of the Living Dead is full of references to Hitchcock's The Birds and to Richard Matheson's [1954 novel] I Am Legend. You look at Texas Chain Saw and see its great dependence on Psycho—and you look at Psycho and see its dependence on Diabolique, you know?
CP: Craven took Last House from The Virgin Spring by Ingmar Bergman and wasn't at all shy about admitting it.
Lowenstein: You can play this game all the way down the line with genre films, and that's because a crucial part of any genre film is its sense of belonging to a previous set of films. But I would agree with you that the new films seem to carry a very explicit sense of their relation to their predecessors—mostly in terms of mood, I would say. I see the new films—28 Weeks Later, Bug, [Zombie's] The Devil's Rejects, Hostel—as being principally attached to the mood of the '70s films: to a dark, nihilistic, pessimistic sense of what's out there in the world, of the possibilities of engaging the world and changing it. This is a very different mood, of course, from the mood of [Craven's] Scream, which is also very much aware of its predecessors, but in a way that's much more playful and sarcastic and ironic. The new films are allergic to irony. They're much more interested in really sticking it to their audiences, horrifying their audiences in as convincing a way as possible.
CP: You're saying that these interpretations take years to develop. Among popular critics, who respond within days or hours or even minutes of a screening of a new film, the chief concern seems to be with addressing the question of whether the films are going "too far"—whether they're in bad taste, whether they're dangerous. And the audience is certainly debating that question, too. I'll read one example—a post I found recently on the IMDB [titled "What is happening to us?"]: The writer says, "It disturbs me that people can find a way to defend these torture porn movies, which just make me very sad for where we've gone as a society." That sort of moral questioning of horror among viewers certainly isn't new, would you say?
Lowenstein: It's not new, no. And I do see that kind of reaction as being important and worth taking seriously. But the fact of the matter is that horror has always oscillated between what I think of as "quiet horror" and "loud horror," and those terms change over time. Take Hitchcock's Psycho. Today we think of that film as being subtle, psychological, non-graphic—disturbing, yes, but quiet. At the time of its release, though, Psycho was an extremely loud horror film, with graphic presentations of the body—and the bathroom—that had never been seen on American movie screens before. In 1960, the assault of that film was very much a visceral one—to the point where stories were written about the phenomenon of viewers being unable to take showers for weeks after seeing the film. So I think the [new] films that are so offensive to certain people today will not feel the same way to those people in time. Now, this is certainly not to say that we shouldn't care about the level of violence in films and about what it means, about what the films do to us. But my sense is that the most important thing is not to bemoan the relative level of violence in these films, but rather to think about whether we have the tools to analyze and historicize what this violence is all about. What I'm scared of is the sense that we're losing the ability to analyze what's happening in the films and in the culture.
CP: Which is partly a product of the new immediacy of communication?
Lowenstein: Absolutely. The environment in general is one in which there's so much more emphasis on the mobile, the instantaneous, and the easily digested, and so much less effort put into more long-term, thought-out, ambiguous, ambivalent discussions of things that don't have yes and no answers. That's really part of the core issue here. The [interpretive] work on these films is absolutely worth doing, but horror often gets short shrift in that regard. People say, "Well, it's just a monster movie, and we all know we don't really have to think about things like that." But of course we should.
CP: I'm reminded of your comments in The American Nightmare, where you talk about the experience of watching the key horror films as being one of constant vacillation between pleasure and disgust, between satisfaction and self-loathing. Why do I like this horror? What am I getting out of it?
Lowenstein: Yes. Every horror fan knows that experience, consciously or unconsciously—particularly any horror fan who has to answer to friends and relatives and spouses who say, "Why do you want to watch this stuff?" It's an eternal question. Part of the reason you want to watch is pleasure, and part of it is revulsion; part of it is the pleasure in the revulsion, and part of it is the revulsion in the pleasure. It's a really complicated set of responses, one that I think is not often appreciated.
CP: And not often reducible to thumb-pointing.
Lowenstein: No, not at all. And not reducible either to snap judgments of responsibility—"This is a film that handles violence responsibly" and "This is a film that handles violence irresponsibly." It's just not that easy. I wish it were that easy in certain ways, but it would make for bad, boring art. Perhaps it would make for a safer sense of the public sphere, but that sense would be illusory, too. If we don't wrestle with these ambiguities and ambivalences, both within the films and within our reactions to the films, then we risk losing our sensitivity to the world around us. I really believe that.
CP: I'm a horror fan, so this is a devil's advocate kind of question, but here it is: How do you make the case for horror to friends and family? When you're really forced to defend your fascination with this stuff, do you say, "Well, it's about the pleasure in the revulsion and the revulsion in the pleasure"?
Lowenstein: There are a couple of different ways I can go at it. One thing I like to do is to tell a story about David Cronenberg, who's one of my favorite filmmakers. Cronenberg's career has certainly changed a great deal since the '70s. But in the early days, a common thing that would happen to him is that interviewers would go to meet him, and the first thing they'd say to him is, "Wow, you're not at all what I expected." What they expected, of course, was based on the films: They expected a drooling psychopath, and instead they meet this very kind and thoughtful man—and so they experience this kind of disconnect. What Cronenberg would say is: "The movies look like that so I can look like this." I think there's something to that.
CP: That's funny.
Lowenstein: Another way of going at it: I just taught a horror film course to undergraduates this past semester, and it overlapped with the Virginia Tech massacre. My students were writing their final essays about films like Texas Chain Saw at the same time that they're hearing this horrifying news about students just like them. What came out of our discussions was a sense that engaging these films in an intellectual way had given them tools to deal with a real-life event that was inexplicable and overwhelming. That felt very hopeful to me. The reaction wasn't, "How dare you make me watch these horrible things [onscreen] when they're really happening in the world?" Instead, there seemed to be a sense that the tools gained by wrestling with these films are tools that can be used to wrestle with the tragic events in the world we live in.
CP: When I talked to Roth recently, he said he holds hope in the fact that soldiers in Iraq have thanked him for Hostel, for giving them "tools" in much the same way that you're talking about. A word like catharsis seems insufficient to describe the effect that you and Roth are talking about.
Lowenstein: I agree with you. I think that catharsis is among the least valuable assets that one could gain from a horror film. Because catharsis is really all about...
CP: Closure, right?
Lowenstein: Closure, yes. And forgetting—"getting over" something. What these horror films remind us, of course, is that the trauma is never really over—that we haven't remembered it enough before we can forget it. I think the real value of the horror film is to remind us that catharsis is too easy, too artificial, and too closed. We know from history that the events we think we've passed through and gotten over and understood come back to haunt us in all kinds of ways. Horror's dark gift is to remind us that the tragic events we think we've gotten over and understood always come back to haunt us. And that's an incredibly valuable gift. I share Eli Roth's sense about this. I find these films to be incredibly optimistic even in their darkest, cruelest moments. What the films share is a sense that it's still worth communicating with an audience: It's still worth getting a point across, still worth making someone feel a certain discomfort; it's worth having that kind of commitment and confidence. There's hope that comes with that—a hope that things can get better.