Why is the bar for horror set so abysmally low?
Peeping Tom, like Freaks, was met with such disdain that the once-revered Powell, whose The Red Shoes and The Black Narcissus are considered among the finest Technicolor achievements in cinematic history, never made another popular film. In the ’90s, Powell spoke about Peeping Tom’s critical reevaluation, saying his film was universally loathed when it premiered and “now everyone’s seen it.” Powell says he’s at a loss as to why; Konow doesn’t even try. He doesn’t mention the film, let alone Powell. That Psycho was a hit and changed horror in America (though Hitch was British) while Peeping Tom, a film no less brilliant than Hitchcock’s, felt the ire of uptight Britain’s censors is a cultural insinuation that—surprise!—Konow ignores. Here’s the closest he comes to any sociological acknowledgement:
“As for Psycho, the impact it made on cinema, and the modern horror film, still reverberates loud and clear. “Psycho, in my humble opinion, is the first modern horror film because it so strikingly took horror out of gothic romanticism,” says John Carpenter. ‘It wasn’t a vampire or a werewolf. It wasn’t an old castle with cobwebs and costumes. It was a motel. You had the motel in the front, and you had this gothic house in the back. It was like passing the torch from old gothic romanticism into modern horror. The whole thrust of the story was going in one direction, then it took a right turn.’”
Notice how Konow lets Carpenter do the evaluating. Konow is either a) scared to say anything of his own creation, or b) lazy. When horror fans get together, they have conversations, talk about what they like and dislike in horror and why. Konow must be the most boring person in the world to talk to because he has nothing to say. You kind of want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him violently—“David! What do you think? Tell me! Tell me! Have you no spine?” His refusal to insert any kind of personality or voice makes Reel Terror feel distant and feckless, a book on life support. He loves horror, but his writing suggests apathy.
Konow’s chapter on Carpenter’s Halloween is the highlight of the book… for about 20 pages. Though all of the quotes from Carpenter can be found with the bare minimum of effort (just click Extra Features on the DVD and boom, there ya go—hell, you can just go on Wikipedia or imdb, both of which are used as sources here), Konow uses them to craft a pretty compelling story. Hearing the producers and writers’ conflicting stories of Carpenter’s aesthetic choices (the lack of gore, the strange 5/4 sinister synth score, the William Shatner mask, the ambiguous ending) is fun, if not entirely intellectually stimulating. Konow’s choice of quotes portrays Carpenter as slightly egotistical, very self-reliant, and crafty as a thief. “Carpenter wanted his name about the title like his favorite old-school directors such as Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Wallace also says, ‘Branding is all the rage now, and I just think John was working very hard to set himself apart and create a brand for himself.”
Poor syntax aside, we learn a lot about Carpenter from this one sentence. And Carpenter’s rebuttal to the oft-made Final Girl theory is never anything but entertaining: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the survivor and heroine of Halloween because she’s a virgin, doesn’t smoke pot, and does her homework, according to ’90s feminist scholarship. Carpenter calls bullshit on this on the DVD commentary, saying it’s her sexual frustration that propels her. When she stabs Michael Myers repeatedly with a quilting needle, a knife, and clothes hanger, plunging the long, hard thing into Michael’s flesh? Yup, sexual frustration.
And then the chapter falls apart because Konow once again berates criticism and analysis: “As with Romero’s zombies, the critics often read too much into great horror films, and perhaps they feel they have to give them more depth in order to like them, just as many different readings were brought to Hitchcock’s work, many of which were probably the farthest thing from his mind when making the movies in the first place.”
(First, David, “furthest” is used when dealing with abstract meanings, and “farthest” with tangible, measurable distances, but I get your point. And that point, by the way, is wrong: Hitchcock very much intended various shots and moments of Vertigo to represent different philosophical and psychological afflictions—the so-called Vertigo shot? The hazy, dreamy stroll through the garden? The green daze permeating Judy’s bedroom? The many, many shots of tall buildings and the slow driving scenes up and down hills? Bernard Herrmann’s score, at once sensual and devastating, a consort of Jimmy Stewart’s character, reflecting upon and responding to his lustful obsession; the spiraling strings and ascending scales and pulsating rhythm section compulsively returning to the root note again and again in Sisyphean desperation? And Psycho’s numerous shots of stuffed animals? Taxidermy kind of being a “hobby” of Norman’s? His mother being, ya know, one of his projects? )
To support his aversion to thinking, Konow quotes Exorcist author William Peter Blatty: “I think all such speculation—and there is much of this kind—is academic foolishness primarily designed to either denigrate the work or to come up with something new that you can get into print” (well, Peter, it seems that writers can simply repeat what’s been said hundreds of times and still get it in print—ask Mr. Konow). He then quotes Night of the Living Dead auteur George Romero: “To me, the zombies have always just been zombies…people start overanalyzing it” (George, you’ve said in many, many interviews that your undead assault on the mall in Dawn of the Dead is a criticism of commercialism, so which is it: critique, or pure escapism? Please clarify). Konow claims his book is a defense of horror, an attempt to help it gain legitimacy, and then he goes and belittles the critics who use theory and scholarship to champion the films… Are you kidding me? Do you hate yourself that much that you’d shoot your own foot with such dimwitted diligence? My hair is coming out in clumps…
It boggles the mind that Konow can so sternly refuse to even think about the deeper meanings of horror films when the first page of the book says horror “has not gotten much respect from mainstream Hollywood,” and then immediately quotes Wes Craven being upset that “people don’t see any value in them.” Craven, who was a professor of English before he made movies about rape and dismemberment, tells us that films can be read in deeper ways. Why the hell would you quote him saying that and then spend 500 pages contradicting him?
Konow’s mud-minded anti-intellectualist banality first rears its empty head within the first 20 pages, when he ignores all of the subtly seditious themes in James Whale’s Frankenstein films. In his ten-page discussion of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, Konow never once brings up Whale’s subversive, homosexual and Catholic imagery, or Whale’s purposeful casting of gay actors in specific roles, or the monster’s tragic self-realization that western culture doesn’t want him. (“We belong dead!”) Whale shows considerable flare behind the camera, particularly with Bride of Frankenstein, but it’s the one-two gut-punch of his dissidence lurking just below the celluloid surface and Karloff the Uncanny’s now-iconic performance that make the Frankenstein films masterpieces. Karloff was asked to stomp around in ten-pound boots and look scary, but he somehow found empathy and humanity in the mumbling mélange of confiscated corpse bits. Whale and Karloff took a gimmicky genre and made it into art. Oh, I mean entertainment, sorry.
It seems impossible to discuss Bride of Frankenstein without discussing the gay themes, the presentation of same-sex parents and forbidden love, of Catholic guilt and redemption and self-loathing, but Konow manages in staggering fashion. He actually accomplishes a lot in Reel Terror: He manages to write a 500-page book intended to defend a genre very few people are attacking, while simultaneously refuting the insight of critics and scholars—with passive antagonism— who defend horror as art; he manages to write sloppily and lazily, even using quotation marks that face the wrong way more than once (I’m dead serious); he manages to keep his own views hidden while claiming to be an ardent fan. Konow should be congratulated: he manages to undermine his own book, over and over. Bravo.
Horror fans seeking more demanding writing are a sad bunch. In the last two years, we’ve gotten not one but two books dedicated to defending horror, but both of which settle for mundane regurgitation. If you’re curious as to why horror doesn’t get much love from serious critics or academics, the answer is vividly articulated in Reel Terror: horror fans like Konow don’t want academics to like horror. They want surface-level appreciation and pure escapist escapades. I picked up this book with tears of joy streaming down my face, thanking the cosmos that someone finally wrote an exhaustive book for horror fans. By the time I got to the sources at the end, the tears were of sorrow and my fists were clenched. Konow’s anti-critic book is un-meditated reversion for serious horror.
The next time you sit through another found-footage film, or another exorcism film, or another 3D remake no one asked for, and you wonder to yourself, “Why is the bar for horror set so abysmally low?” pick up Reel Terror. “Ah. That’s why.”