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.