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Hearths of Darkness

The Family in the American Horror Film


Tony Williams


Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014*

Paberback. xii+360 p. ISBN 978-1628461077. $40.00


Reviewed by David Roche

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès



Tony Williams’s Hearths of Darkness had been unavailable for some time now. With Robin Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986), Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror (1990), Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992) and Jean-Louis Leutrat’s Vie des fantômes (1995), it is one of the major books of the 1980s-1990s to deal with the American horror film. So the publication of this updated edition is excellent news indeed. A new introduction, a postscript and an updated index have been added to this edition. The book’s twelve chapters are organized in chronological order from the 1930s to the 1990s; four chapters (5 to 8) focus on the 1970s, which many critics consider to be the second golden age of the American horror movie. The postscript deals with the 2000s.

The 2014 introduction opens with a call to “humanitarian responsibility” on the part of both filmmakers, critics and scholars [5-6]: attention must be paid to the ideological implications of films, in this case to the way the horror film “maintains its role as a symbolic alarm bell of our era’s internal and external problems” [9]. The original Introduction and first chapter, “Family Assault in the American Horror Film,” explain that the book will explore “cinematic representations of dangerous family situations” [13] in the horror movie, which does not exist in a cultural vacuum but has many connections to literature [24-27] and influences other film genres [21-23]. Williams’s argument is based on a psychoanalytic framework according to which the family is an institution that stifles the individual. It is this institution that the horror film often explores. Reactionary tendencies tend to uphold patriarchy, while more progressive forces undermine it and occasionally propose alternatives. In practice, both tendencies can be found in a given film. For Williams,


Films reflect social contradictions. They never, in themselves, change society, but they may reveal tensions forming the basis for future movements. What actually counts is not the text or aligned genre but the degree of contradiction involved in each particular film that suggests the necessity for progressive alternatives to be realized in a world outside the cinema. [15]

Chapter 2, “Classical Shapes of Rage: Universal and Beyond,” studies the way the four Frankenstein films produced by Universal from 1931 to 1942 and The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941) externalize the horror through the monsters which, portrayed as adult children, nonetheless “articulate deep tensions within the family” [30] and ultimately embody the return of the repressed id. In Chapter 3, “Lewton or ‘The Ambiguities,’” the two Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942; Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, 1944), I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943) and The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943) are read as “allegories of the single woman’s fate within patriarchy” [66]; the ambiguities, produced by complex characterization and an aesthetics of suggestion, reinforce subtexts whereby the “monstrous” female character actually turns out to be a victim of American normality. Chapter 4, “To Psycho and Beyond: The Hitchcock Connection,” argues that “Hitchcock’s cinema actually reveals an arbitrarily violent patriarchal culture” [72], notably through its oppressive mother who are both “functionaries of an oppressive order” [73] and the dominant ideology’s victims; Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which illuminates family horror motifs, Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), as well as The Bad Seed (Mervyn Le Roy, 1956) and Lady in a Cage (Walter Grauman, 1964), are characteristic of an era where “material factors behind horror become predominant” [71].

Chapter 5, “Return of the Native: The Satanic Assaults,” one of the strongest chapters, focuses on Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and The Omen trilogy (1976-1981), films that, to some extent, evidence paranoia in their attempt “to disavow relevant social factors by ascribing traumatic family circumstances to” Satan [98], with the exception of Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman, 1977), which, Williams deftly proves, remains one of the most promising horror movies ever made in terms of its ambitious politics. Chapter 6, “Far from Vietnam: The Family at War,” demonstrates how films like Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), and especially Dead of Night (Bob Clark, 1974), The Hills Have Eyes (Craven, 1977) and Dawn of the Dead (Romero, 1978), reveal the family’s complicity in the Vietnam War, grounding their subtexts in American social realities and history. Chapter 7, “Sacrificial Victims,” focuses on a series of films in which children—the babies from the two first installments of It’s Alive (1974 and 1978), Martin from Romero’s 1977 film—and family members—in The Possession of Joel Delaney (Waris Hussein, 1972), Communion (Alfred Sole, 1976) and God Told Me To (Cohen, 1976)—represent scapegoats for the patriarchal family and society that made them “monstrous” in the first place. Grounded in Christopher Sharrett’s important work on the apocalyptic in American culture, Chapter 8, “Chain Saw Massacres: The Apocalyptic Dimension,” is largely devoted to the films of Tobe Hooper—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and its 1986 sequel, Eaten Alive (1976) and The Funhouse (1981)—as well as Race with the Devil (Jack Starrett, 1975) and David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981). Williams qualifies Sharrett’s view of these films as entirely apocalyptic by arguing that they do retain a materialist perspective regarding social causes on a subtextual level; for him, it is the slashers of the 1980s that best exemplify Sharrett’s thesis.

Chapters 9 and 10, “The Return of Kronos” and “Poltergeist and Freddy’s Nightmares,” deal mainly with the Halloween (1978-1989), Friday the 13th (1980-1993), Poltergeist (1982-1988) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-1991) franchises, which all feature monsters embodying the violent return of the “patriarchal unconscious” punishing the young [232]; the films nonetheless testify to the crisis of the family in the Reagan era, as the adult characters’ ineptitudes lead the youthful characters to increasingly rely on their own resourcefulness. Chapter 11, “The King Adaptations,” focuses mainly on Carrie (De Palma, 1976), The Shining (Kubrick, 1980), Cujo (Lewis Teague, 1983) and The Dead Zone (Cronenberg, 1983), which, for Williams, tap into King’s recognition that “dangerous institutional forces” such as the patriarchal family, capitalism and religious fundamentalism “produce monsters” [241]. Chapter 12, “Into the Nineties,” discusses films ranging from Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991) and Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) to Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986), Flowers in the Attic (Jeffrey Bloom, 1987) and Day of the Dead (Romero, 1985); it argues that most of these films “express lack of confidence” in family as an institution without offering “radical alternatives” [253]. In his 2014 Postscript, Tony Williams concludes that he remains very disappointed that the American horror movie has, for the most part, taken the reactionary apocalyptic route, an impression that has, in his opinion, been confirmed by the films made and produced by Guillermo del Toro among others; he grants, however, that the progressive potentialities of family horror persist in films such as Silent Hill (Christophe Gans, 2006) and Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009), as well as in home-invasion movies like Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002) and TV series like The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007).

Hearths of Darkness is, in many respects, the history of a national genre. Williams explains how “material factors” became increasingly “predominant” from the 1930s to the 1960s [71]—for instance, “Amy and Irena [in the two Cat People] achieve what the Frankenstein creature and young Peter could not in Son of Frankenstein” [57]—and how they were overwhelmed by the indulgence in special effects that started in the 1970s and that has since been confirmed. Though it could seem that Williams is adhering to the three-act arc of film genre—birth, golden age and decline—that has come under harsh criticism in recent film genre studies, it is clear that, for him, the 1970s mark not only a high point, but a time when two routes were possible. In other words, the horror movie, in Williams’s account, did not have to go the way of decline but could have become something else had it developed the potentials present in films like Exorcist II, and Romero’s Living Dead and Cohen’s It’s Alive series. One of the most refreshing aspects of Hearths of Darkness is that Williams’s position leads him to attack films that were favorably received, such as The Silence of the Lambs, and defend films that did poorly, including sequels like Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939), Curse of the Cat People, Exorcist II and Friday the 13th, Part VII (John Carl Buechler, 1988). I am also grateful to Williams for bringing to my attention some worthy lesser-known films, such as Lady in a Cage and The Possession of Joel Delaney. Though Williams focuses on specific groups of films, especially in the first chapters, his impressive knowledge of the genre enables him to draw solid general conclusions. Hearths of Darkness also does a great job showing how the American horror film is firmly grounded in American culture. Williams traces many of its features back to the Puritan ideology of colonial times and draws parallels with literary history, which he clearly knows as well as film history—the demonic children of 1970s horror are descendants of Hester Prynne’s daughter Pearl in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, while movies like It’s Alive (1974) and Halloween (1978) present modern day avatars of Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly and Melville’s Captain Ahab.

Tony Williams’s defense of the horror genre is, above all, based on its political potential, which he asserts is often stronger in low-budget independent films: the violent transgressions they depict, usually effected by the “monstrous” characters, sometimes serve to contest, if only for a part of the film, what Louis Althusser called ideological state apparatuses such as family and religion, thereby revealing the violence with which human beings are subjected. The Frankenstein monster, Irena Dubrovna Reed, Norman Bates, Romero’s living dead, Leatherface and Esther—all are the “monstrous” offspring of a capitalist and patriarchal society. Williams’s analyses of the politics of a film is mainly grounded in studies of the narrative, characterization and various motifs; some attention is paid to composition and camerawork [35, 52, 261], staging and costume [38, 53, 64], editing [65, 77] and the soundtrack [191-192], particularly in the first half of the book. Williams assesses the potential of each film under study and expresses his regrets when a film backtracks, so to speak, to a more reactionary stance. I was particularly impressed by his analyses of Shadow of a Doubt, Manhunter, I Walked with a Zombie, which I am ashamed to say I hadn’t read when I wrote on that film in 2011, and of the first two Exorcist films: Friedkin’s 1973 film is shown to be incoherent because the main bulk of the film is contradicted by a prologue heavily steeped in Orientalism [107], while Boorman’s 1977 film proposes to “unify separate domains of masculine/feminine; science/religion; Satanism/Christianity; east/west; different levels of space time, attempting transcendence toward revolutionary sophisticated meanings that lead toward the abolition of restrictive gender and family definitions” [124].

Not all readers will adhere to Williams’s master criterion of ideology. It is, in my opinion, an important criterion, but I think that the politics of a film are not sufficient to make up for a lack of formal originality, and conversely that the aesthetics of a film cannot make up for the lack of an interesting subtext. Williams, understandably, deplores style for style’s sake, or what David Bordwell calls the tendency of contemporary cinema to indulge in a “stylish style;” Williams sees Brian De Palma as the epitome of this tendency and regrets that the mirror scene in Poltergeist 3 (Gary Shermann, 1988), which is interesting in visual terms, is not clearly wedded to the film’s subtext [320]. I agree that “cohesion” between text, subtext and style is an important criterion to determine what makes a good film, and in my work I have tended to make it the main criterion insofar as it represents the nexus of the other criteria (politics, aesthetics, originality, and so forth). Maybe we can simply enjoy these films for different reasons, while exercising a critical viewpoint on a film’s aesthetics and/or politics. After all, if we follow Umberto Eco (1984), a cult film is an “incoherent” film, one, perhaps, that leaves room for multiple interpretations and negotiations.

Perhaps the only point on which I don’t follow Williams concerns his view (grounded in the work of Steve Neale) of the supernatural and special effects as elements that draw attention away from material sources. This exemplifies another view common to film genre studies: that a genre tends to fetishize its own conventions. I think this is often the case but that it by no means essentially the case, and I think that Williams’s own examples—Exorcist II notably—are ample proof of that. What the genre has to offer, notably through the figure of the monster and the supernatural elements, is precisely its metaphorical potential: the monster is a figure of otherness; as such, it can vehicle both reactionary and progressive politics, and often does so at the same time. This is also the case in science-fiction, another genre that can easily give way to distracting fetishization and yet where utopian potentials are often produced by figures of otherness; in this case, special effects can serve to imagine the possibilities enabled by new bodies. This is where I feel that both Tony Williams and Robin Wood misread David Cronenberg, with the exception of The Brood which, for biographical reasons (Cronenberg’s divorce), is indeed misogynistic. Like Exorcist II, films like Shivers (1975) and Videodrome (1983) explore a merging of opposites that is intensely desirable, but they leave room for doubt as to whether the bodily transgressions will, in effect, offer any form of transcendence: Cronenberg’s pessimism has to do with his view that it is uncertain that we will ever really escape some form of oppressive order because bodies will always be fashioned by various practices and discourses. Moreover, wishing the horror movie to divest itself of the supernatural in order to become something akin to social realism is curious, as they have long existed side by side. It is also forgetting that the horror movie, like the fairy tale and the folk story, works on very primal fears, and that the feelings of vulnerability it plays on can involve the fear of the dark as well as the fear of economic fragility. In short, I would argue that more mature horror movies are not necessarily movies devoid of the supernatural, though, in practice, this is often the case: they are, quite simply, more intelligent movies, movies that ground the figure of otherness in a subtext dealing with social or metaphysical issues, in other words, the exact kind of movie Williams defends.

Williams’s disappointment that the horror movie took a wrong turn leads him to cast a very bitter perspective on the state of contemporary American horror movies. Though I somewhat share his view, I want to be more hopeful, maybe because, in a sense, I cannot afford not to. Interesting horror movies are still being released; it just might be the ratio between the incredible number of films being produced and the handful that are worthwhile that has decreased. I do not think that Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007) was made “with an eye to the box-office economic franchise of the Harry Potter films” [293], though that’s what is has become now that it’s a franchise; produced by film scholar Steven Schneider, the first film is an achievement in low-budget filmmaking that offers a critique of how patriarchy continues to impact a young modern couple in a digital age where a young man can subject his girlfriend to the sadistic camera gaze at home. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015) was, for me, refreshing in the way it turned away from the current taste for fast-paced gore by creating a sense of threat through a slow pace indebted more to Tourneur and Carpenter without indulging in obvious tongue-in-cheek references; the treatment of the city of Detroit, as Reynold Humphries pointed out to me, is very class conscious. The issues foregrounded in Hearths of Darkness also appear in horror movies produced in other countries by filmmakers who are responding to the American horror movies of the 1960s and 1970s they grew up with: I have in mind the painfully gory Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008), the brutally intelligent I Saw the Devil (Jee-woon Kim, 2010), and one of the most beautiful horror movies of the past ten years, Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008).

In a world where politicians and CEOs would have us believe that capitalism is a state of nature and not an ideology, politically-engaged criticism is more than ever necessary. Students, scholars and critics need to engage with the critical writings of the past not to systematically point out their deficiencies—an annoying attitude that implies not realizing that our own work will be subjected to the same treatment in the years to come—but rather to revive ideas that remain relevant or that are worth updating and reconsidering. Williams’s books is one of those works that merits such consideration. As an academic, I could fill pages with specific points I would like to discuss with Williams. But that does not mean I was not convinced by the major part of a book that does what any important work should do: it offers much to build on. It also offers much to please, and Williams’s attention to carefully guiding his reader through each film means that Hearths of Darkness can also appeal both to fans of the genre and readers who are just discovering its history.


*First Edition: Madison (New Jersey): Fairleigh Dickinson, 1996.



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