The Book

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present by Jon Towlson (McFarland, 2014)

Chapter 1: Anti-Eugenics: Frankenstein (1931) and Freaks (1932).

This chapter discusses Freaks (1932) in the context of the Great Depression and the eugenics movement of the time whose 3rd Internation Conference coincide with the film's production. The film - with its scenes of real-life circus 'freaks' rising up against the 'normal' people - was considered too shocking for audiences on its initial release and withdrawn from distribution, In Britain it was banned for 30 years. Tod Browning was an artist with a conscience whose personal preoccupations led to his making Freaks as an allegory of an underclass of the 'unfit' exploited by the 'genetically superior' masters of society. Freaks found an audience in the counter-culture of the 1960s, and now with eugenics threatening to make a comeback, it has particular resonance.

I make comparisons with James Whale, who, like Browning, drew on his own personal experience (as a working class homosexual) to create in Frankenstein (1931), an ‘everyman’ monster who embodied society’s outsiders (the 1930s saw war veterans, unemployed homeless men and homosexuals increasingly ostracised as a result of the ‘sex crime’ panics which swept America at the time of the Depression). The film shocked audiences around the world and was censored for its scenes of ‘blasphemy’, ‘sadism’ and ‘child molestation’. These scenes are discussed in relation to the moral panics of the time.

Chapter 2: Anti-1940s Home Front Propaganda: Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944).

The work of Val Lewton in the 1940s is an exception to the moral conservatism of war years' horror cinema in terms of its gender politics, which challenge the idea of the idealised 'American Woman' as promoted by the propaganda of the time. The female protagonists of Lewton's films (which are essentially 'women's pictures') are outcasts in a society struggling to reconcile female sexuality, femininity and changing women's roles during wartime. The patriotic values embodied by 'Rosie the Riveter' are replaced in Lewton's films by the often suicidal grief and anxiety of his demonised-by-the-patriarchy heroines. By complement, his later Karloff films, in their portrayal of male authoritarianism as being potentially homicidal, tyrannical and insane, emphasise the urgency for the reconciliation of the feminine within the culture and the self.

 Chapter 3: Anti-1950s Cold War Conformism: the films of Herman Cohen

Most critics agree that the SF/horror films of the 1950s reflected the cold war paranoia and anti-communist feeling of the time, however Herman Cohen’s series of low budget ‘shockers’ for AIP took the decisive step of locating the horror of that era squarely in the life of the American teenager and caused by authority gone mad. Chapter two examines the image of the ‘juvenile delinquent’ as presented in the socially coercive ‘mental hygiene’ films of the period, and goes on to argue that Cohen’s representation of ‘juvenile delinquency’ in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) is far more sympathetic - although to discuss teenage rebellion in a such a way was considered taboo at the time.

Chapter 4: Anti-Establishment 1960s Britain: the films of Michael Reeves and Pete Walker

In March 1968 police clashed with anti-war demonstrators in London during protests against the Vietnam War. Present at the ‘Battle of Grosvenor Square’ was the young director Michael Reeves, whose Witchfinder General (1968) broke new ground in its depiction of graphic and shocking screen violence. Reeves’s protagonists exhibit a ‘lustful destructiveness’ arising from feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, impotence and powerlessness in the face of a violent Establishment. This chapter compares the shock cinema of Reeves with that of Pete Walker who deliberately courted controversy in the ‘terror pictures’ he made with David McGillivray by attacking the British family (Frightmare, 1974), the penal system (House of Whipcord, 1974) and the Church (House of Mortal Sin, 1976).

Chapter 5: Anti-Vietnam: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Deathdream (1972) and The Crazies (1973).

In the summer of 1967 political rebellion by the younger generation culminated in the San Francisco ‘Summer of Love’ in which the hippie counterculture movement came into public awareness. 1967 also saw mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War and race riots in Detroit and New Jersey. Filmed during this time, Night of the Living Dead (1968) depicts an America whose 1950s conservative social values have become obsolete and dysfunctional in the wake of Vietnam and are threatened by a revolutionary ‘new order’. This chapter examines the film’s deliberate attack on traditional American values, its smorgasbord of taboo-breaking – which ranges from patricide to cannibalism to everything in between – and its nihilistic conclusion which continues to shock today.

Deathdream and The Crazies depict the literal bringing home of the Vietnam War in different ways but arguably with the same conclusions. Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1972), depicts its returning soldier not as a hero but shockingly as a monster seeking revenge on the society that sent him to war. Made in the year that the My Lai massacre came to public attention leading to a huge swing in public opinion against Vietnam, the film levels the blame on the American patriarchal family for espousing the ‘macho John Wayne-ism’ that had now come back to haunt the nation. The Crazies, (Romero, 1973), depicts the escalating violence of Vietnam as a ‘madness’ espoused by all patriarchal authority including priests, the military – even extending to the president himself!

Chapter 6: Anti-Hollywood Violence and Dark Counterculture: Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Charles Manson killings marked the end of 1960s ideals for many in America. Wes Craven’s Last House on The Left (1972) revises the portrayal of violence in American cinema in the wake of the Manson killings, the My Lai massacre and the Kent State shootings. This chapter examines the film’s taboo-breaking scenes designed as a protest against the sanitized violence presented in Hollywood films of the time.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) developed the themes of a degenerate counterculture and ‘moral schizophrenia’ taking over America in the 1970s as characterized by the Manson Family and Nixon.

Chapter 7: Anti-‘Reaganomics’: Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Chapter six argues that McNaughton’s film represents an oblique attack on Reagan’s ‘trickle-down’ economics and its effects on the poor, which, according to McNaughton, was to create a blue collar underclass without hope where for people like Henry, ‘violence becomes the most viable method of getting by.’ I examine the film’s controversial use of screen violence to implicate the viewer and force us into identifying with Henry, and thus confront us with the alienation and moral emptiness that lies at the heart of McNaughton’s serial killer – as a direct result of  Reagan’s social policy.

As a flipside to Henry,  American Psycho portrays the consumer capitalist excesses of the 1980s as a moral and spiritual vacuum driving the privileged Patrick Bateman to murder in an attempt to achieve some sense of personal identity. The consumer society that Mary Harron depicts in this film is one where only the surface counts and ‘inside doesn’t matter’, and the narcissistic macho individualism of Reagan himself is condemned as a trait shared by serial killers. Both films do a ‘volte-face’ to shock us into facing uncomfortable truths about 1980s society.

Chapter 8: Anti-1990s Materialism: Brian Yuzna and ‘Splat-stick’

‘Splat-stick’ – a term given to the surreal bad taste comedy horror films of Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Frank Henenlotter and Brian Yuzna. This chapter focuses mainly on Brian Yuzna, who remains neglected in film criticism. He is however a writer/producer/director who consistently uses the genre for social satire. In this sense he is comparable to Herman Cohen and indeed his films – which can also be described as ‘B’ movies - share many of the same themes as Cohen’s (authority cannot be trusted – it creates monsters!) However, for Yuzna, the process of bodily transformation (Initiation, 1990; Return of the Living Dead 3, 1993;) is potentially liberating, offering his characters (usually women) the chance to escape the shackles of mainstream social norms and become who they really are. In contrast, Yuzna’s ‘Dentist’ films (The Dentist, 1996, The Dentist 2, 1998) are reminiscent of the Bunuel of El (1950) in their portrayal of machismo gone absurdly mad. His films attempt therefore to reset the balance after the misogyny of the Slasher cycle of the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Chapter 9: Anti-New Puritanism: Teeth (2007)

In 2006 the Bush administration expanded abstinence programmes from teens to adults by introducing courses to encourage un-married adults to remain abstinent until marriage. These programmes have been seen as evidence of a New Puritanism that emerged in America following 9/11 and have been criticized for trying to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling fear, shame and guilt. Mitchell Lichtenstein’s comedy horror shocker, Teeth, addresses themes of sexual repression in modern America in a style of black comedy that is reminiscent of Todd Solondz. It also subverts the fear of female sexuality that perpetuates the vagina dentata myth, exploding taboos about female anatomy and female sexual empowerment along the way. This chapter compares Teeth to other films with an avenging angel motif, Rabid (1976), Carrie (1976), I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981).


The final part of the book focuses on the international instability post 9/11, and the way some horror films have obliquely referenced 'the war on terror', to the current economic collapse and present wave of ‘apocalyptic horror’ sweeping through Hollywood, and ending with Romero's latest zombie film, Survival of The Dead (2009), which seems to depict an Obama-era America starting from scratch and learning to co-exist with other cultures. I speculate on the future of the ‘subversive’ horror film –  perhaps to be found in the work of edgy, indie directors like Larry Fessenden, Ti West, Lucky McKee and Brad Anderson, and in the ‘new feminist horror’ of films such as The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011) and American Mary (Jen & Sylvia Soska, 2012).