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Hearths of Darkness

Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film, Updated Edition

Tony Williams
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Hearths of Darkness
    Book Description:

    Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Filmtraces the origins of the 1970s family horror subgenre to certain aspects of American culture and classical Hollywood cinema. Far from being an ephemeral and short-lived genre, horror actually relates to many facets of American history from its beginnings to the present day. Individual chapters examine aspects of the genre, its roots in the Universal horror films of the 1930s, the Val Lewton RKO unit of the 1940s, and the crucial role of Alfred Hitchcock as the father of the modern American horror film.

    Subsequent chapters investigate the key works of the 1970s by directors such as Larry Cohen, George A. Romero, Brian De Palma, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper, revealing the distinctive nature of films such asBone,It's Alive,God Told Me To,Carrie,The Exorcist,Exorcist 2,The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as the contributions of such writers as Stephen King. Williams also studies the slasher films of the 1980s and 1990s, such as the Friday the 13th series,Halloween, the remake ofThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, andNightmare on Elm Street, exploring their failure to improve on the radical achievements of the films of the 1970s.

    After covering some post-1970s films, such asThe Shining, the book concludes with a new postscript examining neglected films of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Despite the overall decline in the American horror film, Williams determines that, far from being dead, the family horror film is still with us. Elements of family horror even appear in modern television series such asThe Sopranos. This updated edition also includes a new introduction.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-060-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction to the New Edition
    (pp. 3-10)

    Hearths of Darknessfirst appeared in 1996 during an era in which the horror film definitively exhibited its present stage of terminal decline that endured into the early years of the twenty-first century as most examples of Hollywood (and even Southeast Asian cinema) reveal. The bleak succession of decades characterized by the presidencies of Clinton, Bush, and Obama, each much worse than their predecessor, witnessed an even deeper sense of cultural and historical crisis than was the case in the 1980s and 1990s. Far worse has been the collapse of any viable oppositional movements engaged in active critical mobilization against...

  5. 1 Introduction: Family Assault in the American Horror Film
    (pp. 11-28)

    During the 1970s an unusual event affected Hollywood’s representation of the American family. Generally revered as a positive icon of “normal” human society, the institution underwent severe assault. The antagonist was no external force such as the Frankenstein monster, Count Dracula, or Cat Woman; instead the threat came from within. InNight of the Living Dead(1968), a young girl cannibalizes her father and hacks her mother to death. InRosemary’s Baby(1968) Satan decides to reverse two thousand years of Christian hegemony by sending his messiah to destroy American society from within. Polanski’s film anticipates an assault that continues...

  6. 2 Classical Shapes of Rage: Universal and Beyond
    (pp. 29-48)

    Universal’s Baron Frankenstein originates from nineteenth-century literary motifs documented inLove and Death in the American Novel.Instead of fleeing into the wilderness with a male companion, Frankenstein retreats into his laboratory to create a monster. He seeks refuge from familial obligations to engage in an act that is contrary to civilized morality. The scientist gives birth, producing a creature who represents his repressed alter ego. Its clumsy physical movements parallel those of a child prior to its induction into society’s rigid behavioral and educational patterns. Count Dracula breaks every social taboo by violating both males and females; Larry Talbot’s...

  7. 3 Lewton or “The Ambiguities”
    (pp. 49-70)

    RKO produced a number of low-budget psychological horror films that soon gained classic status.¹ The vast majority of these films deal with the family. It is an important component withinThe Cat People(1942),I Walked with a Zombie,The Ghost Ship(both 1943), andCurse of the Cat PeopleandThe Seventh Victim(both 1944).

    World War II had drastically destroyed the isolationist innocence of America. This event significantly affected the national culture. Certain genres now explored more complex notions of personality, especially film noir interrogations of the dark side of American society. RKO was an influential studio that...

  8. 4 To Psycho and Beyond: The Hitchcock Connection
    (pp. 71-97)

    Alfred Hitchcock’s significance is well acknowledged in contemporary cinema studies.¹ Not only was he a great director but he also disclosed key motifs within the realm of family horror. Although, like Freud, limitations of personality and cultural background affect radical realization of motifs within his material, Hitchcock’s cinema reveals characters whose dilemmas originate from the family’s rigid institutional structures. Many features usually concealed by the horror genre’s spectacular mechanisms occur in their most maturest realization within his work, but these features are by no means peculiar to the director. They also occur in other films made within the same era...

  9. 5 Return of the Native: The Satanic Assaults
    (pp. 98-128)

    Despite the emphasis of the 1950s upon material aspects of family horror, many succeeding films were reluctant to continue this process. A Satanic cycle of films such asRosemary’s Baby(1968),The Exorcist(1973), andThe Omen(1976) variously attempted to disavow relevant social factors by ascribing traumatic family circumstances to the aggressive return of an old native lying dormant since the Puritan witch trials. Satan, not problem families, was really responsible. Using this disavowing interpretation, several films allowed audiences to have their cake and consume it. They witnessed families in disintegration, but they were ideologically reassured that the cause...

  10. 6 Far from Vietnam: The Family at War
    (pp. 129-155)

    The Vietnam War influenced many 1970s horror films explicitly and implicitly in style and content. With the exception ofThe Green Berets(1968) until nearly a decade later, major Hollywood studios avoided explicit representations of the conflict. However, echoes of the Vietnam War function as subtextual elements in different genres such as westerns, biker movies, and science fiction. They frequently operate as a significant “political unconscious.”¹ The horror genre was not exempt, certainly not family horror. Diverse examples such asNight of the Living Dead(1968),Last House on the Left(1971),The Night Walk(1972),The Crazies(1973),The...

  11. 7 Sacrificial Victims
    (pp. 156-184)

    Family horror films of the seventies reveal intense contradictions. They illustrate R. D. Laing’s theories on family schizophrenia and often deny supernatural causes for more material explanations. Read according to Michel Foucault’s definitions of discourse and power-knowledge formations, horror film monsters are defined according to a particular set of institutional guidelines as “abject” due to their antagonistic protest against family restraint.¹

    Spectacular devices of violent excess attempt to disavow underlying material causes.² However, many family horror films depict social factors governing the return of the repressed. Parental figures become trapped within dangerous institutional and economic circumstances. Existing in a child-orientated...

  12. 8 Chain Saw Massacres: The Apocalyptic Dimension
    (pp. 185-212)

    The 1980s saw a drastic change in the form and character of the American horror film. In 1980 a work appeared that heralded the genre’s degeneration—Friday the 13th.This film initiated another subgeneric movement variously entitled “slasher” or “stalker” film. Although most commentators dismiss these films as worthless trash, they are symptomatic of their particular era and deserve attention. The phenomenon did not emerge unheralded. As part of a corpus described as “Reaganite Entertainment,” they belong to a cultural movement that gained momentum in the 1970s, erupting during the next decade. These visually repugnant and thematically debased “slasher” films...

  13. 9 The Return of Kronos
    (pp. 213-226)

    InA Nightmare on Elm Street5—The Dream Child(1989), comic book devotee Mark attends a high school graduation swimming pool party with his friends. Seated beside Danny and Greta (the latter is forced to don an unwelcome glamour girl role by her ambitious mother), Mark contributes a significant insight into deep motivations structuring not just the Elm Street series but the vast majority of post-1970s horror films. He speaks of a classical figure, Melisares, who “killed his kids because he didn’t like the way they were running his kingdom.” The analogy applies to both 1980s cult figure Freddy...

  14. 10 Poltergeist and Freddy’s Nightmares
    (pp. 227-239)

    AlthoughPoltergeist(1982) begins with a promising visual exploration of darkness within the family home, it soon degenerates into the infantile mindset of typical Spielburbia, oppressing any of the differences Tobe Hooper intended.¹ Focusing on the closing logo of American television shutdown, the camera tracks away from the visual images of the Iwo Jima monument to reveal Steve’s (Craig T. Nelson) feet asleep before the set. Cutting to separate images of other sleeping family members, the sequence presents a separation between Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) and the unseen monsters from an external televisual id who eventually threaten and consume her....

  15. 11 The King Adaptations
    (pp. 240-252)

    Stephen King’s movie adaptations show family horror’s connections with the American cultural tradition.¹ King belongs to an era of the genre’s finest achievements. He also chronicles certain historic influences on literature and cinema.² As he once said in reference to America’s unjustly neglected naturalist tradition,³ “Almost everything that we do has a history. No matter where you come in on any situation, you are not coming in at the beginning.”⁴ His fiction echoes many themes within horror cinema.⁵ King’s world shows believable, everyday Americans struggling to survive on a darker side, less fantastic than it appears.⁶

    What strongly emerges in...

  16. 12 Into the Nineties
    (pp. 253-274)

    Far from being marginal to the genre, family horror still continues. Contemporary versions may be thematically unadventurous, but they never seriously suggest a return to family values. They all express lack of confidence in the institution. Even if radical alternatives never appear, the status quo is never entirely accepted in most films.

    Although Steve Miner’s campyHouse(1985) shakily attempts to reunite the family, other movies depict marginalized one-parent families or orphans attempting to survive on their own. In Tom Holland’sChild’s Play(1988), young Andy’s widowed mother (Catherine Hicks) economically struggles to rear her two-year-old by working at a...

  17. Postscript
    (pp. 275-302)

    In his conclusion toThe American Horror Film: An Introduction, Reynold Humphries begins his final chapter with the question, “Where do we go from here?” He repeats it at the end of his stimulating book. He begins his conclusion by noting that the “present state of things is not conducive to optimism, let alone enthusiasm” and ends by stating that it is “patent that we shall see no more films of the caliber ofThe Texas Chain Saw Massacrewhich represents for this writer everything that a horror movie can and should be.”¹ As my previous chapter stated, for me...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 303-332)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 333-346)
  20. Index of Titles
    (pp. 347-352)
  21. Index of Names
    (pp. 353-360)