13 May 2008

The American Horror Film in the 1970s

The ideological values and messages of most films, even Hollywood mainstream ones, are shaped and influenced by the wider social and political context in which they are made. Focusing on the American horror film in the 1970s and its relationship to the shifting social landscape of American society at the time, it is clear to see how the messages and values of these films have perhaps little to do with genre conventions of the horror film and more to do with the film makers personal involvement and response to major social events of the late 60s and early 70s like Civil Rights, Feminism, The break up of the Nuclear Family and the Vietnam War. The social commentary evident in most of these horror films typically reflected the collective fears and anxieties of a nation that had started to undergo radical change in terms of political attitudes and social taboos.

Night of the Living Dead

Beginning with George Romero’s The Night of The Living Dead Zombie masterpiece in 1968, the emergence of the horror film as the most unlikely of genres to offer collective social criticism brought to the foreground of American cinema the potent issue of race relations. Romero’s film makes explicit references to issues like civil rights movement, lynching and black militancy, and his casting of an African American in the lead role was a rejection of the traditions of the horror genre and one of the few films in the 60s to offer us a radical reflection of the progressive gains that had been made by the civil rights movement. However, the bleak and fatalistic ending of the film in which Ben is shot dead, his body picked up with meat hooks (indicative of racism at the time), and then finally burnt was not only a devastating image of apocalyptic destruction, it was an appropriate reflection of the shock and horror that was inextricably tied up in the assassination of the key civil rights leader, Martin Luther King in 1968. The final moments of Night of the Living Dead recalls imagery of lynching that was still happening in the Deep South in the late 60s and the red neck white hunters (effectively supposed to be a lynch mob) who are on a search and destroy mission imitate the callous and apathetic actions of U.S soldiers in Vietnam that were being reported in the media at the time. Night of the Living Dead clearly positions itself as a left-wing film and offers no easy solutions for the moral and social breakdown within society, and the fact that Ben does not survive suggests that America was still a long way from abolishing segregation and promoting racial integration within society. As an allegorical figure, the Zombie has been Romero’s means of exploring the social and political changes within American society for over three decades now, and most recently he revisited the ‘Dead’ films in 2005 with ‘Land of the Dead’, a studio film that was Romero’s critique of George Bush, Oil and the War in Iraq.

Last House On The Left

In 1972, Wes Craven’s ‘Last House on the Left’ attracted widespread notoriety for its brutal and realistic depiction of violence that is inflicted upon a young teenage girl by a group of escaped convicts and killers. Wes Craven has talked extensively about how the extreme violence represented in the film was an attempt to reflect the rage and anger dominant within society at the time about war crimes like the My Lai Massacre that was committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. The execution of Mary at the lake makes explicit references to the Vietnam War and signalled a shift within the horror genre to deal with the War in allegorical and metaphorical terms. The Kent State Shootings and the anti-war movement struck a chord with the youth of America and Europe, and a widespread questioning of traditional roles of authority and public institutions revealed an unprecedented level of anxiety. It is obvious to see how Wes Craven uses the demented killers to embody the amoral nature of U.S soldiers. The film ends with the parents of the dead girl exacting revenge upon the killers in an equally sadistic way, implying that even the bourgeoisie when placed under attack, are likely to react in a similar, if not more, vitriolic and perverse manner.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Released in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used the figure of the Monster (leatherface) as an ideological metaphor for the conservative reaction towards the feminist movement that was very much in it’s ascendancy in the mainstream political spectrum of the 1970s. Extreme graphic violence against women in the cinema has tended to run parallel with the growth of the women’s movement, and Leatherface’s phallic purpose as he thrusts his chainsaw into the trembling bodies of young women is unmistakably loaded with gender anxiety. The film also shows the demise of the nuclear family, as the family that the ‘Final Girl’ comes across is not only devoid of a woman, it is entirely made up of a generation of men who have spent their lives working in a slaughter house. Though it would be wrong to suggest that most Slasher films promoted an extremely conservative message and tended to reinforce dominant female stereotypes, the ending to Texas Chainsaw Massacre sees the Final Girl fight back, transforming herself into somewhat of a contemporary heroine.

Dawn of the Dead

In 1979, Romero made what is arguably his most critically acclaimed dead film, Dawn of the Dead. Set within the confines of a Shopping Mall, Dawn of the Dead confirmed Romero’s reputation as an important figure within the American horror genre. The film uses the symbol of the oppressive mall as a means of criticising the rise of materialism and more importantly, consumerism that was taking hold of American society as it was slowly moving into the economic boom time of the 1980s under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The image of zombies being drawn to the mall acts as a clever and satirical commentary on the drone like nature of a middle class American society in which consumerism has replaced religion as the new opium for the masses. Romero’s film predates much of the recent post modern discussion about how shopping malls make zombies out of us all, and though Dawn of the Dead came before Halloween, it signalled the demise of a cycle of deeply intelligent horror films that had been started by Romero in 1968.

Halloween

Halloween was the last major horror film to be released in the 1970s and the director of the film, John Carpenter, has said in interviews how his film is notorious for being the Slasher film that signalled the end of the sexual revolution. In the film, teenagers are punished for engaging in illicit sex, and many critics have interpreted post Halloween slasher films as puritanical in how they try and promote a stern morality about youthful behaviour. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween was also accused of objectifying the central female protagonist, by subjecting her to repeated acts of violence. The film opens with a disturbing sequence in which we see Michael Myers as a young boy, murder his sister with a kitchen knife. Though this sequence is much celebrated for it’s technical bravado, the ideological significance of this moment suggests how the children of feminism, in this case Michael Myers, seemed to want to put an end to the sexual permissiveness of the sixties, and this is chillingly summed up in the image of Michael Myers as a young boy standing on the porch of a quaint middle class suburban house with a large kitchen knife in his hand as his parents look on in horror.

Conclusion

Mainstream Hollywood cinema has constantly provided film makers with the means of using genre as a vehicle for ideological expression, and the tradition of 70s allegorical horror film making remains with us today. Recent Hollywood blockbusters like War of the Worlds (2005) and Cloverfield (2007) have used the traditions of science fiction to address the fears and anxieties of September 11. Approaching a film through a social perspective makes us reconsider the messages and values being conveyed, and forces us to question assumptions about certain issues and themes.

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