BOOK REVIEW "Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter and the Modern Horror Film" by Kendall R. Phillips

The following Book Review first appeared in issue 9.3 of the online Journal of Performance Studies "Liminalities" 
 Check out all of the excellent writing and video work archived at liminalities.net

One of the first major questions Phillips sets out to answer in Dark Directions is why anyone would want to write seriously about the work of the three horror icons at hand: zombie-flick pioneer George Romero; the creator of Freddy Krueger and the Scream films, Wes Craven; and the man behind both Mike Meyers and Snake Pliskin, John Carpenter. For me this effort needs no justification, but for readers who are coming to these directors anew or with some degree of skepticism there may be some convincing to do. Phillips begins by setting these directors, as well as his efforts as a writer, against the focus of Robert P. Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness, claiming that if you scratch beneath the surface of the filmmakers that usually dominate the conversations about the “Film School” generation—Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, etc.—you will eventually be confronted with the social relevance of three more genre-bound auteurs.

As he intends, Dark Directions is a worthy parallel text to Kolker’s, as well as a thorough and fair exploration of the filmographies at hand. Being a Horror scholar, Phillips is wary of veering into criticism that reinforces familiar cannons, while also working in a mode that honors the critical positioning of Andrew Sarris, maintaining focus on critical readings of the films themselves throughout his analysis. In this sense Dark Directions may be the kind of book that gets referenced in smaller portions by its readers, as one or another among this surprisingly diverse body of work becomes relevant for them, but would also function as a concisely considered completists journey through these decidedly hit-and-miss oeuvres.

Phillips re-groups the films in a way that shows their physiological and political impact in a new light.  With the recent Pop-Zombie spate of film and television releases--from AMC’s The Walking Dead to the upcoming adaptation of World War Z—the reconsideration here of Romero’s work that leads off the book provides a link in reading these films that, if not entirely new, at least connects to our desire to make sense of the current zombie invasion.  His reframing of Romero’s films as featuring either “Bodies as Contrast,” “Bodies as a Site of Struggle,” or “Mythic Bodies” seems particularly useful now as an entire field of Zombie Performance—in Film, Theater, and Political Activism—has developed its own history since the creation of the original Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Phillips considers the difference across films in how the “zombie” or other “unconstrained” bodies (as in 1973’s The Crazies) operate rhetorically, noting that in his last film, Survival of the Dead (2009), “Romero ends with parallel lines of living humans and zombies leaving the destruction of their old ways of life in search of some new direction.”  He goes on to argue that “the living dead do not so much stand for something—at least until Land of the Dead, where they do begin to take on a particular political valence—as stand against something.”  Though Phillips draws many parallels to the Reagan era in this book (which makes sense since all three produced a number of films during that period), the notion of zombies “standing against” evokes the number of public protests in recent years that employ zombie bodies:  rising for Greenpeace, the Occupy Movement; rising against the RNC, Bank of America, the Westboro Baptist Church, and the list goes on.

As an exploration of Wes Craven the book begins to feel less evocative, though no less well researched and thorough.  Phillips uses the framework of the Gothic to examine such seminal horror films as Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996), both of which have seen multiple sequels (though he mostly avoids the works not specifically helmed by Craven).  Perhaps my personal bias comes into play here, since I tend to lose interest in Craven shortly after his initial output, particularly Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  But, the Gothic framework reads less compellingly in the chapters on Gothic Form (covering everything from Freddy to the Eddie Murphy vehicle A Vampire in Brooklyn) and Gothic Technologies (including some rightfully forgotten flicks such as Deadly Friend and Shocker), and this may have something to do with the dip in quality of the films themselves.  Still, Phillips is exhaustive, even working Craven’s entry in the omnibus film Paris Je T’aime (2006) into the analysis.  Also, he is not oblivious to the varying quality of the work, not shying away from even the most forgettable of Craven’s filmography, such as his attempt at the werewolf genre in 2005’s Cursed, which Phillips manages to handle with insight, noting: “given the overwhelming gothic sensibility at work in his films, it is odd that Craven’s attempts to engage traditional, supernatural gothic storylines have proven disappointing.”

Perhaps the most revealing analysis comes from his section on Carpenter and the Snake Pliskin films, Escape From New York (1981) and Escape From L.A.(1996). Phillips charts the consequences of Reagan-era politics across these films, as well as what might be Carpenter’s most overt social commentary, the “Rowdy” Roddy Piper sci-fi film They Live (1988), wherein the wealthy and elite are cast as aliens among us.  For Phillips, New York “captures the early rhetoric of the Reagan campaign with a particular focus on Cold War histrionics and fears of internal corruption and crime.” They Live is a parody of 80’s politics in which “the optimistic economic rhetoric of Ronald Reagan becomes a specific target.”  And L.A., which takes us into the Clinton era, resonates with the complete transformation of a 1990’s media that “continued to emphasize image making in politics and the importance of the televisual and cinematic dimensions of the presidency.” 

The section on Carpenter is maybe the most successful due to the way in which Phillips also helps us appreciate the cinematic roots of his work, framing the overall critique through the idea of the “frontier.”  One possibly unexpected aspect of the book is how large a part the American Western plays into the final section:  “The vast majority of Carpenter’s work—while filled with aliens and vampires and futuristic outlaws—draws inspiration from the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford rather than older horror pictures.”  The way in which we begin to see the significance of this work in relation to a parallel genre that has increasingly carried the weight of social commentary is among the most revelatory critiques in Dark Directions.     

Dark Directions is not particularly risky in its analysis or exuberant in its style, but it is a valuable unpacking of three directors whose creations will continue to matter to the film-going/art-making/world-shaking consciousness.  In my experience, a good portion of young film students are awakened to the socio-political implications of film through genre works like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and They Live, which may not be the most dense texts, but do often open up the possibilities of critical film studies (for a generation that could stand to be more critical in regards to the current direction of the film industry).  Phillips understands clearly the scope of these filmographies and what they have to communicate about the drastic changes in film content and production since the earliest (and, arguably, the most enduring) of the films at hand, Night of the Living Dead.  What Dark Directions reveals in a more indirect way is the sad story of these directors late in their careers, mostly tied to the sequel-making machine the Industry has become, and in all cases rendered nearly ineffective in contrast to the indelible impression left by their early works.  Could Craven even make a film like Last House on the Left today?  Judging from the recent attempts to reconstitute the impact of these films (Snyder’s eviscerated Dawn of the Dead in 2004; the limp remake of Last House in 2009), the generation of film makers that Romero, Craven, and Carpenter have spawned is mostly ignorant of the kind of historical and cultural context that Dark Directions amply provides.


Screen Gems: The Red Barn in "My Own Private Idaho" dir. Gus Van Sant, 1991

The following article appeared in The Big Picture Magazine as part of their "Screen Gems" series, which presents the critical challenge of discussing a film through a significant object. Though not exactly a Maltese Falcon, the following piece is an attempt to communicate the potency of a rather large, falling object, the single shot that contains it, and what it was like to be there when it landed:

First of all, there is still an Art House in Champaign, IL. When I saw My Own Private Idaho there in 1991 it had been called the “New Art” theater since around ‘87, when it was resurrected from its seedy past as a 70’s porn venue. The theater has been in existence since the early teens, since before the slash of Bunuel’s razor, since long before I witnessed an image orchestrated by Gus Van Sant that kind of changed my life.

My Own Private Idaho begins with two introductions to the central character of Mike (River Pheonix); one where he ponders the physiognomy of a desolate road, and another where he wakes from that possible dream to an unsure sexual encounter. The two openings are connected by a montage of Idaho landscapes and salmon swimming upstream and bright green and red title cards. We are traveling with a narcoleptic for whom (not unlike the new cinema junkie I was becoming) the moments between waking (between films, that is) have become like fleeting snapshots. As the situation comes into focus, the young boy waking, the strains of a wooden chair and a hungry blow job persisting in our ears, we quickly cut back to that desolate road. 

 At the New Art in '91, not far from a host of family farms, the image of a red barn falling from the sky and splintering the yellow line with surreal precision sent a shock of laughter and surprise through the audience that I can feel in my chest to this day. For Mike this vision is perhaps one of disorientation, of loss, the stable object of the landscapes he dreams crashing through the sky in defiance. For Van Sant the barn is a sort of Bunuelian razor, a liberation of vision that prepares us for what's to come, as well as a tremendous way to symbolize an orgasm.  For me the impact of this object goes beyond that even, marking a change in the cinema landscape that is still worth considering (maybe even by Van Sant, whose admirable but utilitarian work on the recent Promised Land is far from satisfying fans of his more experimental classics); it marks the end of the suffocating, commercial cinema of the 80's that followed the marketing lessons of Jaws and the Star Wars franchise to a fault.

My Own Private Idaho is built from the kind of radical adaptation and invention that was scarce in the decade that preceded it. It’s a daring work of the avant-garde that combines a spectrum of language ranging from the natural storytelling of young street hookers to the metered rhythms of Shakespeare, calling forth a generation of films that take risks, that seek to return poetry and experimentation to the movies, that take teen heartthrobs and animate them within the covers of gay porn mags in an America that would rather see them in Disney fare (it calls forth Spring Breakers!). The barn, for me, has become a momentous screen object, one that marks a challenge in the course of film history, one that falls from a place of anger, liberation, urgency in a moment of waking and Reichian abandon. It's a howl cutting through the solemn funeral of the aristocracy. It's an orgy on the coffin of the 80's. It's a simultaneous “Have a Nice Day” and “Fuck You” to the artlessness of conservative America, both then and now. In 1991, it was a moment of connection that I hadn’t yet experienced at the movies. And today, there’s still an Art Cinema in Champaign, IL.