The Horror Film (Peter Hutchings 2004)

Peter Hutchings, 2004. The Horror Film (Inside Film). Harlow: Longman. (244 pages)

The volume is an in-depth investigation of horror films which raises key issues concerning the appeal and the frequently hard-to-attain definition of the horror genre. The introductory chapter engages an excellent discussion about the limits and definition of the genre. The author addresses the problem in a “chicken and egg” way (p.6) problematising with the election of a body of study vs. definition of a genre. Is it the body of texts which defines our ideas about the horror genre or, is there a basal genre concept which is used as a framework in the definition of the horror genre? How can we decide which films belong to a particular genre without a definition of that genre, and yet how can one form such a definition without knowing in the first place which films belong to that genre?

With that pursuit in mind Hutchings names his initial discussion “Do you know a horror film when you see one?”. It is admirable to see the way the author starts to challenge certain critical assumptions about Horror films and the way they select their body of texts. He suggests that while very few critics nowadays would leave out Dracula in a discussion about horror films, not many would consider looking at Silent of the Lambs, for instance, as part of horror genre movies. The discussion is wrapped up with the suggestion that the horror genre is a mutant concept, in constant evolution. It is argued that the way critics understand and want to discuss Horror is different form the way the film industry promotes horror films. Furthermore, as these horror films are marketed and released, the way audiences perceive and classify them is different once again. What Hutchings seems to do next is to challenge some of the most widespread ideas about the historical development of Horror films, particularly their connection with gothic novels.

Underpinned by the claim that Dracula was actually marketed as a “weird thriller” when it first came out (and marketed as Sci-Fi movies, later in the 50s), Hutchings also draws on the popularity of 1930s American theatre plays to explain the origins of the horror movies. Market forces and the popularity of pseudo-horror plays at the period are pointed out as the key motives for the success of the genre. By doing that he tries to deny the influence of early, 18th century gothic novels on the construction of 1930s’ horror films. Instead he tries to prove that popularity of Frankenstein, Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde in the theatre along with Universal’s marketing campaigns played a much greater role in the success of early horror films. As much as this idea is sound, dismissing the gothic novel as a key influence seems to be an overstatement.

After this utterance his previously flowing argument starts to resort to constant amendments. Every now and then, the discussion he is trying to develop about the autonomy of horror films in relation to gothic novels falls in little traps by pointing out features which are characteristic of gothic novels. At the end Hutchings reluctantly admits that nineteenth century; Victorian horror (not eighteenth century) has a share in the origins of horror movies. Hutchings says at last: “Given that horror has frequently been criticised for being exploitative, those critics concerned to defend it often seek to raise its status thought associating it with areas of ‘serious culture’ (albeit areas of culture such as gothic literature when they first appeared were themselves sometimes accused of being exploitative)” ( p.15). It is a misconception that to link gothic novel to horror movies is to try to confer movies a higher status. Hutchings ends up making the point for those who defend the gothic origins. After spending a valuable amount of time trying to belittle the influence of gothic literature over horror film, he ends up by stating paramount features which link early gothic and horror films, which are: labyrinth-like plot organization, popular appeal, exploitative images.

The issues he takes with critics that see the horror film as emerging from gothic literature is due to his understanding that these accounts marginalise the economic forces at work in the creation of horror films. Hutchings major thesis claims that in the initial formation and subsequent development of horror films, the way films are marketed, the commercial reality is really what we should be looking at. However, there is no obvious reason why that choice has to be made. Horror film could be influenced by the market and still have gothic influences. This kind of polarisation seems to be constant throughout the book (in the next chapter he polarises with Psychoanalysis) and by the end he has written a long list of grievances which does not actually help him in making his point. Sometimes a point of view is not exclusive of another.

All in all, the discussion is well elaborated and raises some very interesting points. It is not original when dealing with the 70s’ horror films and its interpretation of Psycho is biased by his wishes to see Norman Bates as a transvestite. I do not agree with the implication of transvestites and mental disease which seems to be the case of Bates (this question is actually addressed and ruled out in the film, Hitchcock gives us the key of know not to read Psycho). However, the final discussion about self-reference in Scream a not a phenomenon of post modernity but as the maturity achieved by horror films (films that usually have teenager appeal) saves the day and make The Horror Film a very accessible and appealing book


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