Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Review: 'Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade'

The 1920s and 1930s were watershed years for horror cinema as they were for all cinema. The twenties saw silent horror rise around the world with abandoned artistry. The thirties saw the genre’s tropes come into focus at Hollywood’s Universal Studios. That decade’s horror explosion turned to an implosion with the arrival of World War II’s very real horrors and the MPAA’s censorship crackdowns. This left forties horror seemingly out of focus with its plethora of relatively benign sequels, “Poverty Row” cheapies, and hard-to-categorize realistic pictures residing in the twilight zone between horror and noir. The apparent lack of full-blooded, truly artistic horror cinema during the forties often leaves the genre getting a bad critical rep—or even ignored—in discussions of horror and forties cinema.

Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade collects seventeen new essays that reevaluate a period too often maligned or shrugged off. What the writers uncover might cause horror fans to rethink both the standing of our favorite genre during the forties and what constitutes a horror picture. Writer Kristopher Woolfer acknowledges the blurriness of this period by noting how, in the forties, horror as pulpy as House of Dracula had become more reality based— with its vampire and werewolf seeking scientific cures for their monstrousness— and how drama as reality-based as the pseudo bio-pic Citizen Kane borrowed Gothic horror tropes liberally. Peter Marra further forces us to rethink how horror hid in the forties by designating Bluebeard, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Leopard Man, and The Spiral Staircase as proto-slasher pictures—right down to their sexually motivated killings— released decades before the usually identified year-zero pictures, Psycho and Peeping Tom. Meanwhile, filmmaker Anne Golden acknowledges that a movie such as The Spiral Staircase does not have to adhere to a single genre, and can exist just as reasonably in the shadows of horror as it can in those of the avant-garde. Even more fascinatingly, Ian Olney locates a previously hidden stream of proto-feminist horror pictures during the era (while cheating a bit by bleeding into the fifties). Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare argues that The Body Snatcher contradicts Val Lewton’s reputation for overly restrained “horror of the unseen” pictures with one that he sees as falling in line with the Grand-Guignol tradition (the writer avoids discussing the graphic gore for which the theater is best known since Lewton’s production obviously has none of that). Mark Janovich tries to boost the reputation of forties horror by calling attention to the work of two of Hollywood’s biggest icons—Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson—in the genre.

This book lacks a serious reevaluation of Universal’s horrors of the forties, which included enough unfairly over looked pictures—The Mummy’s Hand, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, House of Frankenstein—to warrant their own explorations. Too often, Universal’s movies cast in minor comparative roles throughout these pieces. But perhaps Universal’s horrors have been handled as a whole enough times that this gap is excusable. Meanwhile, some of the best horrors of this period—Dead of Night and The Uninvited, to name a couple—are never even mentioned. That is more than a little curious, but even without such key pictures, these essays still manage to reveal how varied, evolving, influential, and present horror remained in this so-called “lost decade.” As should be expected of a book of this sort, a couple writers (Woolfer, Cory Legassic) bury their arguments beneath a slag heap of academic jargon , but the vast majority of these essays are as lucid and pleasurable to read as they are thought provoking… and Kier-La Janisse’s study of the appeal of the horror comedies of the East End Kids for real kids is downright fun.

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