Subversive Horror Cinema by Jon Towlson (book review).

I’ve always maintained that film directors don’t always understand the layers within their films, let alone the interpretations as given by the people who analyse them. In the introduction to ‘Subversive Horror Cinema’, film director Jeff Lieberman says the same thing about his own horror films. That being the case, I would have thought writer Jon Towlson would have had his work cut out for himself in this book as he does this very analysis of interpretation. Although he doesn’t say it as such but only from examples, it is the sensitivity of the director to the material and characters that draws it in a particular direction. Oddly, as with his opening chapter where he focuses on Tod Browning and James Whale, both of whom were gay and their main films ‘Freaks’ (1932) and ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) were altered by their studios anyway, so if there was a subliminal message, it was clearly messed up and, I would think, confuse any thoughts the viewer might have had.


There are some interesting facts here. Did you realise that ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ (1957) was the first teenage horror movie not to mention launching actor Michael Landon’s career.

Although Towlson doesn’t say as such, British horror film directors, like Michael Reeves and Pete Walker, are more likely to consider and use certain undertones within their films but that might be because the author being British and knowledgeable of the history at the time. To target specific events as being instrumental to a film could apply to any genre though and I doubt if any film director will think to add something to a scene let alone the entire film during production. Where American horror films addressing VietNam events before they even happened, as on page 122, is even stretching things further. I doubt if any director is that prescient and this is down to interpretation. One thing horror and SF films have in common that appeals across the generations is that similarity can be applied to any true-life events and why they far outlast the sale-by-date of other genres.

Something I hadn’t realised before that the aspect of horror films that director Wes Craven was trying to sell with his horror films was that violence came with a price and that it not only hurt but killed you. I say ‘trying’ because despite Towlson’s assertion, people only remember the gore and not the why behind it. Having some of his films banned in the UK clearly didn’t help Craven get his message across. It does make me wonder had Craven chose to convey true violence in another genre back in 1972 would he have given a stronger message to the public?

This doesn’t mean I always disagree with Towlson. His analysis of Reagan’s America is spot-on and being topical, even shows the past and current Conservative Party’s attitudes to the poor over here as well. Chapter 8 is far more frightening than the films he covered in the 1980s.

There’s an interesting examination of Peter Jackson’s early horror films before he got the fantasy bug and an even bigger look at George Romero and Brian Yuzna’s films.

Despite my adverse comments above, Towlson does do a good examination of the films without resorting to elaborate synopsis breakdowns, which makes it a useful guide to check into their availability to assess his thoughts and whether you can see a deeper meaning in what you see. Whether horror films are truly subversive is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

GF Willmetts

April 2015

(pub: McFarland. 246 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £36.95 (UK), $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-78647-469-1)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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