Horror Movies (Carlos Clarens 1971)

Carlos Clarens, 1967. Horror Movies: an illustrated survey. London: Panther, 1971. (pp.312).

Clarens’s Horror Movies was first published in 1967; nevertheless, it remains an expressive book containing amazing insights which are sure to enthral every reader. The author surveys the subject in its widest sense, encompassing in his investigation the genre science fiction and a brief discussion about the difference between the horror film and le cinema fantastique. Despite the fact it just missed out on two films which would transform the genre in the years to come (Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Kulbrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) Clarens’s Horror Movies is undoubtedly a level-headed research into history of these genres, a book which is nothing less than a classic study of horror and science fiction movies.

His method consists of what we could refer to today as a cultural approach to the horror genre, explaining its trajectory throughout the times, from its very beginning in Europe (especially France and Germany) up until his present 1960s. Clarens summarizes the plots and relates the importance of a number of relevant films, from the early works of Georges Méliès and the German Expressionists to Universal Pictures horror movies such as the original Dracula and Frankenstein to the suggestively atmospheric work of Val Lewton and the sci-fi classics of the 50s. Due to the time it was written, it is not surprising the lack of image analysis in the whole volume. However, the book describes the most important films of the period in detail and concentrates upon the work of key directors and actors.

Clarens’s writing style is non-academic, in fact, his extensive erudition and fluent narrative style resembles that of classic essay writers. This lack of academic convention (which is generally kind to the reader by stating its purposes) makes the underlying thesis a bit harder to pin-point. In spite of this, it would not be unfair to say that Clarens is interested in the mythical value of horror films, and how they affect the viewer. The author believes in universal themes (and in that sense anti-historicising) and how these themes are connected to the production and consumption of horror movies. Clarens says: “Satan is immutable, it would seem, whether ancestral dark angel or devil in the flesh. Those who imagine him today are not the doctors of demonology but the psychiatrist, the anthropologist, the sociologist. To them, horror movies might be seen as a historical imperative, if not an as aesthetic necessity” (p.10). His thesis, stated or implied, is that horror movies today perform the same function/influence Myths had on us in the past.

The author goes on to say that “only the best horror movies sustain their power to frighten through the passage of time. Yet this does not necessarily entail a loss of interest or even popularity. They gain a new dimension in perspective by appearing encrusted with the meaning of their period”(p.11). Clarens demonstrates how Prometheus represented mythical alibi for man’s defiance of divine will and then how it came to represent the myth of electricity (in Frankenstein) after being the myth of scientific power. Furthermore, he shows how Mr Hyde becomes more recognisably human as accept that our forefathers endeavoured to conceal and represses. In short, Clarens says horror films make us nostalgic of the things we once feared but “they help us to gauge the escalation of our insensibility” (p.11). In my opinion this last observation is nothing short than brilliant as it follows that a supremely violent age, like ours, calls for unprecedented violence in its aesthetics manifestations.

Clarens also traces an important distinction to the comprehension of what can be considered horror movies. According to him, the “exclusion of Les Diaboliques, Psycho, Repulsion and the more blatant borrowings from Krafft-Ebing are not as arbitrary as it may seem if we are to consider the Horror Film as the Cinema of Obsession, the rendering unto film of the immanent fears of mankind: damnation, demonic possession, old age, death, in brief, the night side of life. In Jungian fashion, I fell more compelled to single out and explore the visionary than the psychological” (p.14). Readers interested in the many horror and science fiction films made before the modern era of graphic violence and special-effects extravaganzas will be enchanted by this book. Finally, I was positively surprised by the sensible and level-headed understanding of the author over his own book. He realises that the staggering number of horror movies produced up until then could wreak havoc on any serious attempt at theorising, Clarens defends that “most movies have their own voice, and none of them was created to support a single aesthetic or theory” (p.15). All in all, Horror Movies is highly recommendable and well-worth reading.

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