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The Unseen Masters of Horror

Fright fans love to praise the visionary efforts of their favorite horror directors. But behind every great terror auteur is usually an unsung macabre master.

Auteur theory, which was quite popular during the '50s, establishes the notion that movies almost exclusively reflect the artistic and creative vision of the director. Within this framework, all the work done by actors, cinematographers, composers, and editors is demoted to secondary consideration. Basically forged by two distinguished Frenchmen, the prominent scholar Andre Bazin and the acclaimed director Francois Truffaut, this theory had a huge impact on film criticism worldwide and was mostly used to analyze the oeuvre of luminaries such as Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and Howard Hawks.

However, in spite of its international impact and importance, by the '70s, new theories and analytic approaches that incorporated structuralism, psychoanalysis, and cultural studies showcased the many weaknesses of the pure auteur model. These novel ways of thinking proposed that films are the product of our culture, reflecting a variety of social and psychological problems, preoccupations, taboos, and desires.

John Carpenter

But nevertheless, the concept of authorship remains a reasonable idea. After all, we are well aware that some directors are attracted to specific themes. When we stand in line to see a project directed by John Carpenter, George Romero, or Clive Barker, we fully expect a terrifying rollercoaster ride brimming of violence, gore, and horror. And in a similar way, it would be rather surprising if someone like Ron Howard directed a slice and dice splatterfest.

As a result, it is worth noting that of all the cinematic categories, horror is probably the most adept at being studied under auteur theory. Indeed, directors commonly associated with this genre appear to be quite consistent in the type of films that they choose or are chosen to direct. This is partly due to the genre’s popular allure, low budget nature, and exploitative content. But the same argument could be made for the western and musical. Of course, these two types of cinema have been practically dead for the past few decades.

However, from a formal standpoint, the main problem with auteur theory is that it is typically based on the complete oeuvre of a director. This in turns is quite troublesome, as such a body of work usually spans several decades, and if we take into account that cinema is a rather volatile industry, it is not surprising to find directors and films that are not consistent. Such instability can be explained in terms of technical craftsmanship, budget allocations, themes, subtexts, originality, and overall artistic quality.

If you think about it, the director often has to negotiate a variety of issues that in one way or another affect the critical and popular reception of a film. For instance, insufficient financing, studio interference, misguided distribution strategies, inept crews, difficult actors, and even wary audiences may determine the success or failure of a movie. Then there are those exceptional cases in which the director may be so far sighted that he makes a flick that's way ahead of its time (think about John Carpenter’s The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China).

Such complexities make it almost impossible to isolate the director from his environment, thus allowing him to make a film true to his artistic spirit. Unfortunately, filmmaking is an expensive undertaking, so much so that it prohibits actual experimentation. Still, such a rhetoric concern is actually addressed, albeit indirectly, by the Showtime TV series Masters of Horror. In this truly groundbreaking show, a well known horror director gets the chance to helm a one hour fear fest each week. If we are to believe the people involved in the making of the series, each director has a relatively large degree of creative control and a reasonable budget at his disposal.

But if you think about it, the rather unique structure of Masters of Horror transforms the series into an intriguing framework to test auteur theory. Unfortunately, the results do not support a concrete application of the directorial authorship concept. If anything, this series reinforces the notion that a good horror movie is a multifaceted construction resulting from a pool of unique talents that all converge at the right place and time.

Dario Argento

Some of the truly legendary directors so far featured in Masters of Horror include John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Dario Argento, who directed Cigarette Burns, Dance of the Dead and Jenifer, respectively. But even though these episodes were very entertaining, these are not of the same caliber as Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974), and Suspiria (Argento, 1977). And truth be told, these episodes lack the originality, invention, intelligence, dynamics, allure, morbid elegance, and gruesome sense of aesthetics that characterizes the highlights of the masters’ overall oeuvres. Clearly, Masters of Horror proves that a famous director with considerable creative control is just not enough to make an exceptional horror movie.

Then again, this outcome should not be a big surprise. After all, filmmaking is by its very nature a collaborative effort, and not the product of a single mind. Unfortunately, we have been wrongfully conditioned by studios, distributors, and film critics to assign the entire quality of a movie to the director and the actors. Indeed, if you ask around, you will find that most cinema fans can make a long list of their favorite filmmakers and performers, but they are likely unable to name a single Director of Photography (DP) or editor from one of their favorite films. Such a disregard is often associated with the false premise that in order to appreciate the work of a DP or an editor one needs formal filmmaking education. There are two simple rules of thumb that can make the ideas more accessible: (1) if it looks good, then the movie has a good DP; and (2) if the storytelling is good, then the movie has a good editor.

Let us consider first the case of John Carpenter. Most fans and scholars will agree that the period between 1978 until 1986 remains his most inspired and prolific. During this time Carpenter directed true landmarks of the genre such as Halloween, The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). It is important to recall that most of the discussions and analysis of these five films usually boil down to their stunning shots, their fluid camera movements, their elegant widescreen compositions, and their outstanding use of light and shadows to convey fear and suspense.

Dead Cundey

However, these comments reveal more about the work of the DP than the director himself. Therefore, it should not be a surprise to find out that the DP of these five films was the same person: Dean Cundey. Arguably, these are the best looking films in Carpenter’s career, and quite unfortunately for horror fans, Big Trouble in Little China marked the last collaborative effort between them. After this film, Cundey moved inside the “Spielbergian circle”, working on several high profile flicks such as Jurassic Park (1993), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and the last two entries of the Back to the Future Trilogy (1989, 1990).

Similarly, the highlights of Dario Argento’s career indicate something equally telling. Few would disagree that his best flicks are Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975), Suspiria, Inferno (1980), Tenebre (1982), Phenomena (1985), and Opera (1987). But we also have to acknowledge that a big part of the success of these films is their narrative drive and masterful visual storytelling both used to create suspense, shock, and horror.

But then again, such a claim speaks more about the work of the editor of these films, Franco Fraticelli, than anybody else. For those who have never heard his name, Fraticelli was one of the busiest editors in Italy and worked on nearly 150 films before his retirement in the late '90s, including such undisputed horror classics such as Demoni (Demons, 1985), La Chiesa (The Church, 1989), and Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man, 1994). The fact that most of Argento’s films since Opera have struggled to keep the frantic pace characterized by his earlier masterpieces, reveals how important the contributions of Fraticelli were to his movies.

On a side note, no discussion of horror directors can be satisfactory without mentioning Lucio Fulci, the indisputable king of Italian gruesomeness. Thanks to his truly ground breaking zombie tetralogy, Zombi 2 (Zombie, 1979), Paura nella citta dei morti viventi (The City of the Living Dead, 1980), E tu vivrai nel terrore: l’aldilla (The Beyond, 1981), and Quella villa accanto al cimiterio (The House by the Cemetery, 1981), Fulci will forever be associated with the highest levels of horror culture.

However, it has always been a mystery as to why most of his other films completely pale in comparison to his living dead opuses. Indeed, when one thinks about such a terrible fare such as Aenigma (1987), Demonia (1990), or Porte del silenzio (Door to Silence, 1991), the concern becomes clearer. Once more, we can argue that the success of Fulci’s undead saga was the result of the combined efforts of DP Sergio Salvati, editor Vincenzo Tomassi, scriptwriter Dardano Sacchetti, producer Fabrizio De Angelis, and of course, Fulci himself.

It's safe to say then that the most important job of the director is to coordinate and motivate the many talents working under him. This is not an easy job by any means. As such, the final quality of a movie cannot be better than the worst member of the film’s crew. Therefore, a groundbreaking film is created only when several talents happen to converge and coincide in the same time and place. And of course there are a few directors that rightly deserve the authorship of the final film. For instance, Stanley Kubrick was legendary because of his active participation with all the stages of the film making process, and David Cronenberg maintains his vision by constantly demanding to work with the exact same crew. But filmmakers like these are very rare in today’s industry.

Lucio Fulci

Finally, we can follow analogous arguments and observe that a high percentage of established directors that work within the Hollywood structure usually produce good films. For instance, think about the amazing Hollywood careers of Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, and James Cameron. But then again, their status is what allows them to pick and choose the projects they want, and with large budgets at their disposal, they are able to work with top-notch crews. Unfortunately, to do so they have to sacrifice some of their artistic sensibilities in order to conform to studio policies (forget about a movie in the vein of Evil Dead or Bad Taste coming from Raimi or Jackson anytime soon).

In a similar way, if we go back to Masters of Horror, the filmmakers that truly excelled themselves are those who usually work on the fringes of low budget cinema. Probably having a better crew at their disposal, the transgressive Takeshi Miike (Imprint), the politically conscious Larry Cohen (Pick Me Up), and the extreme John McNaughton (Heackel’s Tale) delivered surprisingly good scares.

While the discussion here is not meant to demean the outstanding work of Carpenter, Argento, and Fulci, it is important to realize that even though the directors are the ones who get most of the credit for the final product, they do not work alone. Therefore, it is imperative to shed some light into the exceptional efforts done by the DPs, writers, art directors, and editors, who have mostly been ignored in critical and historical accounts of the horror genre. Cundey, Fraticelli, Salvati, and Tomassi are only a few of the countless unheralded forgers of horror culture. They are the unseen masters of horror, and truth be told, an aesthetic appreciation of their contributions to fright cinema is long overdue.

Unseen forces attack the heroine from Lucio Fulci's The Beyond

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