Interview with Jon Towlson, Author of Subversive Horror Cinema

Horror cinema flourishes in times of ideological crisis and national trauma - the Great Depression, the Cold War, Thatcher-era Britain, the Vietnam War, Western society post-9/11; since the dawn of the silver screen, the genre has held a mirror up to society, throwing back a shocking reflection to provoke and perturb huddled masses in darkened rooms; who more often than not, may see nothing but the horror of reality itself staring back at them from the screen. Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, a fascinating, meticulously researched and compellingly written new book by Jon Towlson, argues that a succession of filmmakers working in horror - from James Whale to twisted twins Jen and Sylvia Soska - have used the genre, and the shock value it affords, to challenge the dominant ideologies of these times.

Jon recently took the time to have an in-depth chat with me about his new book, the subversive nature of horror cinema, and its uncanny reflection of society in times of political turmoil, socio-economic strife and civic unrest...

Let's start with the obvious question, Jon: What made you decide to embark on this project? Can you tell me about its genesis? From where did the idea originate and when did you begin working on it?

As a kid growing up in the 1970s I was always into horror, and the whole equation of horror cinema and politics seemed to impinge on me at an early age. I grew up in a town called Grantham, in the East-Midlands, which was the home town of Margaret Thatcher, and my family was English working class, so Thatcherism seemed very close to home, and it was a very political time. You couldn’t get away from it because it affected you so directly: the power cuts in the late 1970s, the Falklands War and the miners’ strikes. I remember coming home from school one evening and the lights going out, this would have been 1979. I was only about ten or eleven; my mum and dad and brother were at work, and I was alone in the house – this new house that we had just moved into – in the dark, scared witless, and waiting for the power to come back on or for someone to come home.

Scene from George Romero's The Crazies (1973)

Argentine soldiers captured at Green Goose during the Falklands War, 1982

Like a lot of fans my age, before internet and even video, my first exposure to horror movies was those late night double bills on BBC2. The film that really made a huge impact on me was The Crazies. It really disturbed me, but there was something about the idea of a society falling apart at the seams that I recognised because of what was going on around me at the time. Grantham didn’t have a cinema back then, so these working men’s clubs in the town would show films in 16mm projected on a pull-down screen in a backroom. I remember seeing The Towering Inferno, Rollerball, The Man with the Golden Gun, for the first time in these clubs. So, for me, cinema-going was directly tied in with working class culture. The first time I saw Dawn of the Dead was in one of these social clubs as a kid of about thirteen. It was a screening laid on for the kids of the workers of an agricultural firm in the town called Aveling-Barford that made dumper trucks and the like. It was a mind-blowing experience. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing because none of us had access to this kind of stuff. This was before home video. I remember my mate turning to me halfway through the tenement scene – when the zombie takes a bite out of the woman’s arm – and saying to me, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

UK Miners Strikes, 1984-5 

The next month the same firm showed Martin because the Dawn of the Dead screening had been such a success! It felt like we were seeing stuff that was normally forbidden. The experience of seeing these films in a hall on a 16mm projector as part of an audience of overexcited, overstimulated teenagers stayed with me. And then, of course, when video came in a couple of years later, all of the unregulated stuff was available briefly, so I got to see all the Nasties before they were banned. But the ones that really made an impact – again – are the ones I cover in the book. Last House On the Left, I saw when I was about fourteen, and it always stayed with me, even though, after the Video Recordings Act I didn’t get to see the film again for twenty years. Texas Chainsaw I first watched around about the same time, on video in a print that had been slightly cut by the distributor for release in the Greater London area. I managed to catch it again occasionally at the Scala in London’s Kings Cross, they’d show a scratchy old 16mm print, before it was eventually granted a certificate by the BBFC. So, just watching these banned films in the 80s and 90s felt like a politically subversive act in itself!

Talking about VHS, just to digress a little, I think a lot of the furore about Video Nasties was tied in with concerns about this new unregulated medium of home video, and not just in terms of the distribution of VHS, but also because, in the 1980s, affordable domestic video cameras came in and non-broadcast video, and people started to use video for citizen journalism. I was involved with a film and video workshop in York in the mid-1980s, and there were feminists there making videos protesting against nuclear weapons being deployed on Greenham Common, and leftwing environmentalists making videos, all part of a grassroots movement using the domestic videotape formats to promote dissenting political viewpoints. I remember the workshop distributing the Miners’ Campaign Tapes, which were shot by citizen journalists on domestic video cameras, which showed the police brutality against the striking miners from the other side of the picket line - stuff that wouldn’t make it to the nine o’clock news because it was too anti-police, anti-government.

UK Miners Strikes, 1984-5

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

So, this new medium of home video back in the 1980s, because it was egalitarian, made the authorities very nervous. Jumping forward a few years: I was teaching film at what is now known as the Arts University College, Bournemouth – quite a prestigious film school – Edgar Wright went there, so did Simon Beaufoy, who wrote The Full Monty. I started to teach a film class in horror and I showed the documentary, The American Nightmare – this was after discovering Robin Wood’s writing on the horror film – and it just blew me away, because it keyed into all of these film-going experiences that I’d had as a teenager in the 1980s. I started thinking about Wood’s Marxist readings of the horror film, and they really made sense to me, again because of my own experiences and background and political inclinations having been involved in the film workshop movement and seen these leftwing groups in action. After 9/11 it seemed like the horror genre had entered a new cycle and that those readings were still relevant.

You go right back to the early days of cinema and work your way through the decades to the present. Was it obvious to you which films to examine from each era? Without wishing to ask the obvious (again!) - why did you chose the films you did?

It’s funny because the book is 246 pages; if you open it exactly half-way at page 123 you’ll find The Crazies, so that film really is at the heart of it, of me wanting to write it. I would call The Crazies the quintessential subversive horror film in the sense of it being anti-authority, shockingly graphic, taboo-breaking, critical of the family and of a patriarchal militaristic society. First off, I knew I wanted to feature the apocalyptic horror films of the 1970s, from Night of the Living Dead to Dawn of the Dead (with Last House, Texas Chainsaw, Hills Have Eyes, Deathdream, Shivers, Blue Sunshine in between). I see this as a developing cycle, the golden age of subversive horror cinema, almost a countercultural movement in itself. Then it became a case of projecting backwards and forwards from there: what would be subversive in the 30s, 40s and 50s? And what would be subversive in the 80s, 90s, and up to this present decade? What’s interesting is that you find the same themes recurring in early horror cinema that are still being explored today. Val Lewton’s films are very anti-patriarchal, so are Pete Walker’s, and The Soskas’ American Mary, all in a similar way – they all talk about how the patriarchy destroys women. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is about mind control across the generations: The Sorcerers picked up the same theme decades later. So I chose the films really to show that you can trace a line through the decades and see that the concerns of the filmmakers who use horror for social criticism – whether it be James Whale in the 30s, Herman Cohen in the 50s, George Romero in the 70s, or Brian Yuzna in the 90s – remain essentially the same because capitalist society hasn’t really changed.

The Crazies (1973)

Deathdream (1972)

Which came first - the films you chose to examine, or the main countercultural events from each era you looked at? 

I tried to look at the dominant ideologies of each decade and how certain films and filmmakers challenged them. In the 1930s, for example, there was the Great Depression, of course, but eugenics was hugely popular and reached a peak of popularity in 1932; there was a huge eugenics conference in New York that year. Scientists were talking about the elimination of the ‘unfit’ through sterilization. One of the exhibits at the conference shows the patients of a New York hospital: these patients – including a Schlitze-like ‘pin head’ - look just like the cast of Freaks, made in the same year. At the same conference, scientists were talking about criminality being genetic and giving speeches about criminals having abnormal brains, just like Dr Waldman does in Frankenstein. We forget how topical these films actually were because a lot of these historical events are not widely known about or talked about; but when you place films like Freaks and Frankenstein or The Crazies (military planes carrying chemical and nuclear weapons actually did crash in the American mainland in the early 1970s) in their full historical context, meaning explodes out of them.

Tod Browning and his cast from Freaks (1932)

What is it about the films you cover in the book that you find so compelling and engaging, and why do you think these types of films provoke such critical analysis and garner the huge cult followings they do?

I think that these films work as allegory, and iconographically they key into their times. They evoke actual events on an image/sound level as well as on a thematic level. The rioting imagery in Night of the Living Dead is a case in point. That, of course, speaks to the racial riots going on in the 1960s, to the mass movement against Vietnam, and it seems topical to the time. The poster of Night of the Living Dead, as I point out in the book, evokes the front pages of news magazines like Time, only instead of showing rioters and looters attacking homes and businesses, it shows zombies. I think audiences, caught up in these historical events at the time, recognised this allegory on a subconscious level and were drawn to these films precisely because they offered an alternative, countercultural or subversive viewpoint that the mainstream media denied them. Nowadays, we are conscious of the subtext of these films and that makes them fascinating to us as a modern audience because they become like alternative history lessons. A film like The Crazies is still as relevant today because the problem of gun worship etc. hasn’t changed, in fact it might have gotten worse. Beyond that, I think we all despair for society sometimes, and these films tend to voice that feeling of despair, that fear that society is collapsing and that we, as individuals, are powerless to stop it.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

What is it about horror that enables filmmakers to engage with countercultural ideas? What do you think horror possesses as a genre that gives it the ability to comment on social issues such as class, race, gender, sexuality and politics in ways that other genres can’t? 

Central to horror is this notion of the monster and the monster’s relationship to normality. In the films I cover in the book, there is sympathy for the monster which is often portrayed as a social outcast. In horror the monster is often a projection of what society casts out as ‘Other’: ie. anyone who poses a threat to the dominant social order by virtue of their class, race, gender, sexuality and political beliefs. The monster therefore becomes a kind of countercultural figure, and the question becomes: who do you side with, normal society or the outcast monster? There’s an inherent tension because – by virtue of being cast out – the monster becomes a degenerate force. Kind of like a terrorist. We can’t condone the actions of a terrorist, but on the other hand we can sympathise, to an extent, with their plight or at least understand it. That’s why the genre is so fascinating in terms of its ability to put forward subversive ideas, because you can really push this sympathy with the monster. One of the key decisions that James Whale made on Frankenstein was to cast Karloff rather than Lugosi as the Monster because he felt Karloff would be more sympathetic to an audience, and sympathy with the monster who represents everything that was cast out and despised in the 1930s – working class unemployed men, homosexuals, even war veterans – was, I think, one of the reasons why the film was so successful: ordinary people during the Depression couldn’t help but identify with the Monster to a certain extent, as well as loathing it.

Frankenstein (1931)

Protesters in London during the Great Depression

Which films/filmmakers have had the greatest impact on you whilst working on this project? 

Of all the films in the book, I find Last House on the Left the most problematic because it’s all about the failure of counterculture. I find the early scenes with the two girls by the waterfall – the symbolic flowering of youth and youthful idealism – incredibly, profoundly moving. But the conclusion of the film – that progressive social change is bound to fail because we are all inherently violent, aggressive and competitive - I find that to be a reactionary message. It’s the same reactionary argument used to repudiate socialism – that socialism is impossible because human beings are naturally competitive, aggressive and violent. Of course, the counter-argument is that violence, competitiveness and aggression are triggered by the conditions of an unjust and oppressive society. Romero probably comes closer to expressing this counter-argument in his films than anyone else; his films talk about the need for co-operative social endeavour, for rejecting state-sanctioned violence, and for learning to co-exist with the part of ourselves that is ‘monstrous’, which is why I would say Dawn of the Dead is still probably the most progressive horror film ever made.

Last House on the Left (1972)

The foreword is by none other than Jeff Lieberman (writer/director of such cult classics as Squirm, Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn) – how did he become involved? 

I had written a piece on Jeff in the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies; Jeff read it and we started corresponding. I always felt that his work hadn’t been discussed much in academic circles, that his contribution to the development of the genre in the 1970s hadn’t been written about much, compared to that of Romero, Hooper, Craven et al, so I wanted to start a discussion about that by writing an article. Later, when I was working on the book I started thinking about who I wanted to write the foreword. The central argument of the book is that the subversive content of these films is put there deliberately by the filmmakers - it’s not simply an unconscious reflection of the times – these films are a direct challenge to the ideologies of their time. I remembered an interview with Jeff at the Monster’s Chat website where he said that he’d been attracted to the genre in the first place because horror is inherently subversive and allowed him to do and say things that he couldn’t do in other genres. So I asked him if he could expand on that in the foreword of my book. I couldn’t have asked for a better validation of my argument, as Jeff’s a real elder statesman of 1970s horror. I remember reading about him in those House of Hammer mags when I was ten years old, and he always seemed such a cool, hip figure, even then. I read the novelisations of Squirm and Blue Sunshine when I was at school.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book? 

Marshalling all the material into a coherent whole! I had ten years of notes and ideas, three or four years of intense research and a lifetime of thoughts on the subject. The first book outline I wrote was too sprawling and unfocused. For example, I originally planned a chapter each for Tod Browning and James Whale, instead of combining them into one chapter as I eventually did. I actually wrote the Browning chapter, and realised it was too rambling. So I had to make some tough decisions in terms of what to include and what to omit in order to give the book the focus it needed and to keep it to a publishable length; hence the Anti-Eugenics, Anti-Vietnam etc. chapter headings. I almost went too far in tightening it up – I was actually going to cut the chapter on Shivers, Blue Sunshine and Dawn of the Dead because it didn’t seem to fit into the new structure, but thankfully I came to my senses – how can you not include those films in a book on subversive horror?

Anti-Vietnam War Protesters, Washington

Still from Blue Sunshine (1978)

And the most rewarding? 

Discovering the films of Val Lewton. I had seen Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie a few years ago but they did nothing for me. I found them boring and incomprehensible! The chapter on Val Lewton wouldn’t be there, in fact, if it wasn’t for the publisher, McFarland. I wasn’t going to include any 1940s films, but they pointed out that if I was taking a decade-by-decade approach, leaving out the 1940s would seem strange. Reluctantly, I agreed to write something on Lewton challenging the homefront propaganda of the war, where women were told “‘keep the home fires burning’ while the men go off to fight, take jobs and become independent, but be prepared to give this independence up and return to being housewives as soon as the men come back from overseas.” I see this expressed in the torn, conflicted women in Lewton’s films and in the male characters who repress their anima – their feminine sides. The more I looked into Lewton the more rewarding it became. When I came to see his films as a body of work I was just blown away by them. Curse of the Cat People has become one of my favourite films of all time. As shocking as it may seem, some critics view horror as a juvenile and unworthy genre of cinema.

Curse of the Cat People (1944)

The Leopard Man (1943)

What is your response to those who dismiss horror cinema as a waste of time? 

In the same way that I came to appreciate Val Lewton, I’ve known people who start out with that position, that horror films are misogynistic rubbish, and then come to change their minds when they realised that there is more going on in the genre than they originally thought. When I was doing an MA in Independent Film in Southampton, I gave my lecturer a copy of Robin Wood’s book Hollywood, from Vietnam to Reagan and a copy of Romero’s Martin. She came back to me and said she had no idea that the genre could be so radical. Later, when I was a lecturer myself, I made my students sit through a season of 1970s horror movies including Last House, Shivers and Dawn. I was starting to think that perhaps this was a cruel thing to do to non-horror fans when one of the students – a young black girl – came to tell me that she had really been turned on to the genre by these films, because she had come to see it as a radical alternative viewpoint. Of course, conservative types will continue to dismiss the genre, and Hollywood will keep trying to neutralise it and de-fang it.

Shivers (1975)

American Mary (2012)

With chapters on more contemporary titles such as Teeth and American Mary, you demonstrate that horror is still presenting subversive ideas to audiences. What do you think of the current state of horror and where do you see it heading in the future? 

Horror seems to come in movements, like the 1931-1936 cycle, the 1970s cycle, the splatstick films in the 1980s/90s. Right now, I think the Larry Fessenden group of filmmakers – Jim Mickle, Ti West, Brad Anderson, Chad Crawford Kinkle, constitute a movement in the States. These guys are very much aware of the radical aspects of the genre and are committed to it. Independent production is growing, thanks to digital technology, so alternative voices are emerging. I think we are going to see more women filmmakers, more ethnic filmmakers going into the genre and bringing a new radicalism to it.

And finally, Jon, what’s next for you? 

It’s looking like the next book will be a Devil’s Advocate monograph on Candyman for Auteur Publishing. I’m really looking forward to going into depth on a single film, looking at its social commentary, on how Bernard Rose adapted Barker’s short story, The Forgotten, and the influence of real-life setting Cabrini Green in Chicago. I remember going to see Candyman when it came out in 1992 and being blown away by it. I love the ambiguity of it, and the way it becomes a study of urban myth as a sociological phenomenon.

Author Jon Towlson
After that, it’s another book for McFarland, this time on 1930s horror cinema. I’m expanding on an article I wrote for Paracinema which argues that the first cycle of horror from 1931-1936 is more akin to apocalyptic horror of the 1970s than it is to the more conservative horror films of the war, even though the 1930s and 1940s films are often lumped together as the ‘classic’ period. Essentially I’m arguing that the horror film from its earliest days is inherently subversive. I’m looking at the way that the genre was formulated in the 1930s before the Production Code came into full effect. I think we forget how shocking the early 1930s horror films were. That scene from Murders in the Rue Morgue, for example, where Lugosi has the prostitute strung up on a cross while he takes samples of her blood - it’s almost an early example of ‘torture porn’, and it’s also strikingly similar, in the way it is staged, to the scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where we have Leatherface carving up a body in the foreground, while Pam is dangling from the meathook behind him. So it’s my contention that you can’t separate horror into political periods historically: you can’t say that the classic period is conservative and modern horror is subversive. I think it is much less clear cut than that. The subversive tradition exists alongside the conservative one and always has.

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present will be published in July 2014 by McFarland & Co, and is now available to pre-order. If you can’t wait that long, worry not, it is available to download for Kindle, no waiting necessary. For a detailed look at what it has to offer, including the delicious foreword by Jeff Lieberman (who, as the writer-director of titles such as Squirm, Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn, knows a thing or two about subversive cinema) check out the preview on Amazon

Visit the author’s blog here, and keep up to date with him on Twitter and Facebook


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