'Subversive Horror Cinema' Opens Your Eyes to Films You Thought You Knew

Aware that theories about the horror genre can turn into fanboy rants, Jon Towlson's book is almost encyclopedic in its efficient division and referential format.

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present

Publisher: McFarland
Length: 256 pages
Author: Jon Towlson
Price: $45.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-03

The best books about film have the unique quality of feeling like they’re betraying the medium upon which they’re expressing their ideas; that is, they make you want to stop reading and go watch the films they’re discussing. Of course, in most instances, these books also serve as handy guides to help you discover elements concealed in the films in question, as well as open your eyes to help you rediscover films you thought you already knew.

Subversive Horror Cinema by Jon Towlson is one of those books. The London-based journalist and film critic presents his whole thesis around the idea that history is cyclical and the unstoppable, unavoidable repetition of events throughout the ages have made the horror genre much better at encompassing the zeitgeist than one would expect, not to mention they have challenged the state of things, when other film genres have merely embraced it.

“The horror film, scholars have found, is also cyclical, enjoying phases of popularity particularly during the ‘bad times’, the times of economic depression and war” he explains in the introduction. But he makes it clear that his book’s purpose goes further than that, “many studies of the horror film tend to treat the films themselves as cultural artifacts that simply reflect the times in which they were made,” he establishes, while “this book argues that a succession of filmmakers, from Tod Browning and James Whale onwards, have used the horror genre -- and the shock value it affords -- to challenge the status quo during times of ideological crisis.”

Towlson’s ideas won’t sound farfetched or strange to horror connoisseurs who might have been championing such films for decades, but the scholarly authority and thorough research presented in Subversive Horror Cinema makes for a pleasurable read. Aware that theories about the horror genre can sometimes turn into fanboy-like rants, Towlson does his best to make his book as organized as possible. It's almost encyclopedic in its efficient division and referential format.

The book is divided into chapters named after specific ideological movements of the 20th century. It uses this chronological order to highlight Towlson’s ideas about subversion, and also to represent the evolution of film theory itself. The first chapter, then, is dedicated to Eugenics and explores how the reactionary rise of eugenics after the Great Depression led to the making of films like Freaks and Frankenstein. “Our culture has long linked physical appearance with moral worth," he writes, as he takes us into the era he’s talking about, trying to make us empathize with the state of paranoia the world lived in between the world wars.

He then pulls the rug from under us to prove a point, and makes us see how easy it is for artists to make their audiences take stances they might not have taken on their own. He uses this to single out the brilliance of Tod Browning’s Freaks, which originally attracted (and still attracts) viewers with a promise of lurid spectacle and shock value, but then proved to be something else: an anti-eugenics film. "Browning had drawn the audience's sympathy away from the 'normal' and towards the 'freakish'," he explains, and then "shocks us again as the freaks become sinister and monstrous and we are asked to empathize with their uprising." A twist, he explains that is "more shocking to modern audiences, who become uneasy with the idea of equating physical disability to monstrosity."

Towlson intelligently speculates on why filmmakers such as Browning and Whale made such powerful films by digging into their lives to find parallels with the things that drew him to become a film scholar. “The filmmakers in this book tend to have been radicalized by the times in which they lived. Whale, for example, was a gay man of working class who witnessed the social effects of the Great Depression on homosexuals and working men,” he explains.

Since Subversive Horror Cinema isn’t a story of the genre, but of specific moments that have subverted the world around them, the book might fool some into thinking it’s incomplete, but Towlson quickly dispels any skepticism by being so articulate about the items and films he has selected to discuss. Perhaps, after all, the main mission of the book is to make readers revisit films and find ways in which Towlson’s theories might apply to them.

As he goes into the '40s to discuss how the films of Val Lewton (the Cat People series) turned the “foreignness” of monsters into something domestic, Towlson proves he is good at focusing on some subjects where he knows it’ll be difficult to argue with him. However, not all of the ideas in the book are meant to sound like they’re the last word on the subject; Towlson seems to be open to discussion and debate, or at least his work is meant to elicit thoughtful conversation. While the book is thoroughly researched and Towlson makes a strong case for all of his arguments, his work is meant to elicit thoughtful conversation. He wants to challenge readers and encourages them to yes, go watch these movies again, but also, challenge him, in return.

In the last chapter he recurs to hyperbole and calls Brad Anderson "one of the best -- if not the best -- directors working in psychological horror," which is sure to incite horror lovers to point out his oversights. Subversive Horror Cinema is a provocative genre discussion and its greatest pleasures, just like those in a horror film, shouldn’t be spoiled too far in advance.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.