Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: 'Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film'

Our ideas about and understanding of filmmaking changed drastically when Roger Leenhardt and André Bazin of Revue du Cinéma introduced their “auteur theory” to the cinematic lexicon in the mid-1940s. Leenhardt and Bazin passed the ownership of film, once considered a collaborative effort or a producer’s medium, to directors with singular visions. Such directors, the critics argued, are the true authors of their films because they control scripts that reflect their own social, political, and artistic ideologies. With their distinctive camerawork, lighting, and control of their actors, they single-handedly crafted their films as assuredly as painters manage canvasses and sculptors manipulate stone. Although the auteur theory has its flaws— some proponents overlook the integral contributions of writers, cinematographers, producers, and the rest—it has helped establish a canon of indisputably great directors whose work can very reasonably bear analysis as the product of a single, or at least principal, creator: Francois Truffaut (the theory’s first high-profile champion), Orson Welles, Jacques Tati, Jean Cocteau, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, etc. Grand artists creating grand works of art. But are conventional concepts of artistic value integral to auteurism?

In his new book Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film, Kendall R. Phillips argues that Leenhardt and Bazin’s theory should extend to three filmmakers often shoved to the back of cinema’s closet because they primarily work in the dreaded horror genre. Phillips establishes broad thematic threads as evidence of their auteurism: George Romero’s fixation on the body, Wes Craven’s fascination with the split between nocturnal Gothic horror and diurnal reality, and John Carpenter’s obsession with the American frontier.

Phillips’s thesis regarding Carpenter is strongest. He smartly stops just short of designating the director as a maker of Westerns, but provides a sharp view of the way rugged individualists stumbling into dire situations in cagey variations on the American frontier recur in much of his work. But horror is so deeply linked with the body and Gothic traditions that either theme could just as easily be applied to the films of Whale, Raimi, Browning, Cronenberg, Polanski, and many other genre filmmakers as Phillips applies them to Romero and Craven. The writer also avoids his three filmmakers’ aesthetic sensibilities for the most part. A director’s stamp is not merely measured by recurring themes, but also by distinctive artistry. Perhaps Phillips recognized that a number of the films he discusses are artistically negligible and deeper discussions of aesthetics might damage his central argument.

Despite its somewhat incomplete argument—and I’m certainly not suggesting that these filmmakers aren’t auteurs— Dark Directions is a compelling and intelligent look at Romero, Craven, and Carpenter’s politics and the finer themes linking select clutches of their movies (each chapter deals with threads traveling through three or fours specific films). This means the book does make a strong case for the intellectual mechanisms grinding behind horror’s surface murder, gore, and mayhem. As such, it may provoke more intelligent considerations of a genre that often doesn’t get its due. For that alone, Dark Directions would be a very worthwhile book.
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