Friday, 13 July 2012

Your people destroyed our homes and made us what we've become

The Representation of Isolated Rural Communities in American and British Horror Films


 
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 - mechanised agriculture apparently turns farmers into monstrous cannibals.

In the 1970’s horror film directors continued the traditional horror convention of isolation but some focused more exclusively on isolated communities, and portraying them as a potentially dangerous element to mainstream societies. These films portray families, villages and tribes of people living in remote areas, which preserve a contrasting culture to that of the central character(s) in the film which represent the dominant ideology within Western civilisation. Straw Dogs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Wicker Man and The Hills Have Eyes are all examples. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) showed the contrast between a civilised suburban family called the Carters and a feral family of mutant cannibals they encounter when they break down in the desert. The cause of the feral family’s mutations and cannibalistic tendencies is credited to the United States Military for conducting nuclear tests in the desert. Despite the fact that it is the civilised society depicted as being the cause of the problem, the real villains in the film are the isolated country family and their primitive behaviour.

The Wicker Man 1973 




 
The Wicker Man 1973

There are a range of theories that have been applied to the horror genre sometimes utilizing psychoanalytical approaches to analyze the text from perspectives frequently associated with gender studies. There are few theorists who have fully considered the connotations of the social divisions implicit in the representation of isolated white communities even though they seem to be a recurring theme in horror films particularly in the 1970s and onwards. This is an area that requires research and study, particularly because it is a theme that can be seen in many films, not all in the horror genre and not all from the 1970’s and onwards. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) is unlike many horror films in style, but it too depicts an isolated rural community, blinded by ignorance and blaming the arrival of an attractive urbanised modern woman for the unnaturally violent behaviour of the local birds.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a turning point in the genre, subsequent films have drawn horror from characters whose violence is a result of their psychological state. This form of horror could be perceived as being more realistic, but the characters in such films are rarely as deeply constructed as Norman Bates, and are often two dimensional monsters that serve merely as devices to construct or criticise an ideology as much as the monsters of old horror did:

“As the capacity or religion and its equivalents to fill this need receded with the advance of technology in the nineteenth century, the simultaneous discovery of the unconscious and the cinema released a new source of imagery for ‘rendering unto film…the immanent fears of mankind:” Cook (1999: page 196)

These psychological monsters can be used effectively to illustrate the failings of the capitalist system, as is evident in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the Hills Have Eyes (1977). Both featuring families living in isolated rural communities who have been failed by the system and in being left behind have regressed to a primitive lifestyle which parodies the dominant culture of commerce and trade which failed them.


Remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2004), one cannibal is a police officer, thus equating the law enforcement and legal establishment of rural America with the backward representation of rural communities which is now prevalent. 




Remake of Hills Have eyes (2006)- white cannibals shown to be genetically inferior by way of their mutations.

Hills have eyes poster (1977)

The theme of otherness, difference and the concept of representation in horror as a fetishist concept, if accepted, can just as easily be applied to films that are intended to challenge notions of patriarchy and "civilised" behaviour. There is a tendency in modern horror to portray rural, often agricultural communities of white people in developed Western nations as primitive, inherently violent, culturally inferior, mentally deranged etc. Straw Dogs (1971), Wicker Man (1973), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) are just some of many examples that anyone familiar with the genre could offer, but these ones are relevant as they were all released in the 1970's, a time when traditional and conservative values were being challenged by the ongoing counter-culture of the sixties, the members of which were assuming positions of power in the media. It is telling that ALL of these films have been remade in the 21st century, and all of them have gone even further to sensationalise the violent nature of the said demographic, upon whom a protagonist reaps vengeance through violence. There is an underlying message in all these films, that the supposedly cultured urban peoples are in fact no better than these violent rural communities, for when they are required to defend themselves, they resort to the same kind of violence. Though a critique of the urban culture, this implicitly constructs said culture as superior to the rural.


Remake of Hills Have eyes (2006) - far more graphic violence against the rural community who are in this film even more grotesque in appearence than those in the original. Their mutation is the product of military testing and so is blamed on traditional power structures and the American military itself.

Rather than being a manifestation of an oppressive patriarchal, white power structure intent on suppressing women and ethnic minorities, these films are all intended to defame and demonise traditonal cultures of western societies. If an alien were to assess the quality of life in rural and urban parts of the West by watching these films, it would come to the conclusion that the cities were havens for peaceful, cultured intellectuals whereas the countryside is a dangerous place full of rapists and murderers. Crime statistics consistently show the opposite to be the case.
 
Original straw dogs - an American intellectual is set upon by primitive Cornish men.

What is the function of such demonisation and why is it so prevalent now? Hollywood producers certainly know that remakes are a safer bet financially, but the types of films chosen also serve a political purpose intended to redefine notions of western identity and disrupt existing power structures which are based on cultural traditions.In so doing, a system of cultural hierarchy is presented that places communities whose economy is primarily agricultural, beneath those urban protagonists who are forced to correct the backwardness of the rural culture with violence.


The remake of the Wicker Man(2006) is a slight exception to the rule, since in this case the scottish island, now located in Washington state USA, is home to a colony of wiccans rather than pagans. The matriarchal society is shown to be flawed and the police officer is murdered as in the original, but in this version, despite not glamorizing the matriarchal commune, the police officer is brutally violent towards the women, and so is hardly shown to be much better than the murdering cult he fights against.




Horror

The Horror film genre is one of the most difficult to define, many film genres like comedy and romance were taken directly from theatre, others like the Western were developed specifically for cinema, but the horror genre had its roots in European art and literature. For this reason many film theorists will not recognise horror as a genre, preferring instead to divide its content into sub-genres such as the ‘slasher movie’ and ‘fantasy thriller’

“a tension remains between older European traditions and Hollywood, producing the problem of relating the forms which developed in the European art cinema in terms of the fantastique or supernatural.” Cook (page 195)

Before the 1970’s the horror genre was rarely awarded serious analysis, however in England it had become one of the most lucrative areas of the film industry resulting in the acclaimed success of British Hammer Horror studios. In America the genre was also successful but was less respected in its own right for its cultural significance, the gothic imagery of German expressionism which is a notable convention of horror was present in films from both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1970’ however, the nature of the genre changed, as there were no longer haunted houses, gothic churches and creatures from ancient European folklore, but rather just psychotic human killers in a modern American context.

“The heritage from German Expressionism was important because ‘the style itself is capable of infecting almost any subject matter with its eerie tone..the sense of mystery, of lurkers in the shadows is the constant factor” Tudor (1974) in Cook (p.195)

As a result of this change during the 1960’S and 1970’s many of the conventions that were previously used to describe the genre, had been made obsolete, Psycho (1960) could be  referred to as the birth of the American slasher movie, however, films such as these still contain many of the visual stylistic conventions of the traditional horror genre such as suspense and the inclusion of a female victim and can be viewed not as the birth of a new genre but as the modernisation of one of the oldest.

“One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilisation represses or oppresses, its re-emergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and for the happy ending (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression.” (Wood, 1986, p 13)

The fact these particular types of horror films are currently being remade may be an indication of their relevance to modern society, and perhaps shows that they subvert suppressed fears in the collective minds of 21st century cinema audiences.

Remake of Straw Dogs (2011) in which rural men are shown to be prone to rape and lack respect for women.

Social Anxieties depicted through Horror

The horror genre has always been used to depict the tensions, anxieties and fears of society of the time. Sometimes the films clearly depict situations that reinforce the dominant ideology others utilize the conventions of the genre to criticise the nature of the capitalist society we live in. In The American Horror Film (2002) Reynold Humphries details how the horror genre can be used as a device with which to communicate the collective fears of mainstream society, whilst simultaneously reinforcing dominant ideologies in the process.

Humphries identifies Dracula (1931) as an example of a traditional horror convention used to portray established ideologies in the form of visual and narrative metaphor. Dracula is an aristocratic monster from the East who preys predominantly on female victims, he can be seen as representative of class dominance, male dominance or as the indiscriminate consumer capitalist, who consumes all to satisfy unquenchable sexual desire, and this reading implies that Dracula who feeds on both sexes is bisexual. Humphries applies both Marxist and Freudian approaches to the villain.

“Such is the aristocratic standing of Dracula and the dream of the patriarchal capitalist who has replaced him. He is also society’s inevitable punishment for such forbidden pleasures. Just as the bourgeois thinks he alone has the right to property and luxury, obtained through the labour of those who have neither, and steps in to restrain by any means the lower orders who dare demand their share, so Dracula stands in for the punishment of our guilty desires through the terror he brings, a terror that is the fear of transgressing society’s ‘natural order’.”
Humphries (2002: p.13)

Other conventional horror or sci-fi characters such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1931) transformed into cinema by James Whale, can be read as being capitalist characters, as it is his pursuit of capitalist activities that results in the horrific creation of his monster. As with Stoker’s Dracula this reading is critical of capitalism but rather than playing on the fear of transgressing the capitalist hierarchy imposed on society, it is a fear of the technological advances that capitalism requires are made in the name of progress. Frankenstein’s monster is then a symbol of the proletariat rising against its master, after being forced to work against its will.

“The monster is thus the signifier of alienation as he has no identity outside that given to him by his creator (and Frankenstein behaves like God). He is also its signifier in as much as he is made up of bits and pieces; fragments of other people. Thus does the capitalist Frankenstein live off literally dead workers, getting them to work twice: The first time they get some payment for their trouble, but once dead they can be used at will.”
Humphries (2002: p. 15)

The traditional horror themes of supernatural monsters are less commonly present in modern horror, although just as Frankenstein and Dracula are representations of possible negative products of the dominant and mainstream ideology of consumer capitalism, so too are films like the Hills Have Eyes indications of the dangers of capitalism in the 20th century and perhaps a reflection of social anxieties regarding these dangers.
“As the capacity of religion and its equivalents to fill this need receded with the advance of technology in the nineteenth century, the simultaneous discovery of the unconscious and the cinema released a new source of imagery for ‘rendering unto film…the immanent fears of mankind:” Cook (1999: p.96)

Psycho (1960) was a turning point in the genre, subsequent films, as recent as Saw 3 (2006) now generating horror from characters whose violence is a result of their psychological state. These characters that generate horror could be perceived as being more human, but the characters in such films are rarely as deeply constructed as Norman Bates, and are often two dimensional monsters that serve merely as devices to construct or criticise an ideology as much as those monsters of the old horror did.

“When villains and victims are such shadowy, undeveloped characters and are portrayed equally unsympathetically, narcissistic identification on the part of the audience becomes increasingly difficult.” Modelski in Braudy and Cohen (p.770)

Tarratt (1984) writes about the preoccupation such films have with the problem of reconciling the desires of the individual as both sexual animal and social being ( p 348) she writes with reference to The Thing From Another World (1951) another film featuring monsters in an isolated setting. “The Arctic landscape provides an objective correlative for his emotional and sexual life, repressed in the all male disciplined environment of an isolated base” (p338) These psychological monsters can be used effectively to illustrate the failings of the capitalist system, as is evident in two of my key film texts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Both feature white families living in isolated rural communities who have been failed by the system and in being left behind have regressed to a primitive lifestyle which ironically echoes the mainstream system of commerce, trade and family values which the narrative indicates has failed them.

“This is precisely the fate that befell Leatherface and his family, made redundant when the slaughterhouse became automated, technological progress enabling the owners to increase production and cut down the work force.” Humphries (2002:p.23)

‘Otherness’ in horror.

The image of the female has always been a convention of the horror genre. There is a great deal of theory regarding the feminist approach to the horror genre, as it is a genre criticised by feminist theorists such as Cynthia Freeland for catering exclusively toward a male audience and in the process reinforcing the so called patriarchal ideals of male dominated capitalism.

“The tension arises between the viewers desire to look and the ongoing narrative of the film is especially acute in the horror film. Typically in horror, the woman or visual object is also the chief victim sacrificed to the narrative desire to know about the monster. Horror flirts directly with the threat of castration underlying the fetish or visual appearance of the woman.” Freeland (1994) in Braudy & Cohen (p.43)

Yet she fails to address the fact that the problematic and violent elements in all these films are the white rural communities, particularly the men. The family unit is also an important part of much horror narrative and some characters function as an enforcement of such values, others such as the family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be read as a criticism of capitalist notions of family values, as it is a critical and fetishist representation of the institution of the family.

“Robin Wood has analyzed the film as embodying a critique of capitalism, since the film shows the horror both of people quite literally living off other people, and of the institution of the family, since it implies that the monster is family.” Braudy & Cohen 2004 (p.768)

Laura Mulvey (1975) is among the first of many feminist film theorists who applied Freud’s notion of scopophilia to a gendered cinematic context. Scopophilia is Freud’s theory (1905) that there is pleasure to be derived in looking at someone as well as being looked at, Mulvey’s critique is based on the claim that the cinematic gaze constructed onscreen is gendered to be that of male observing female.

“The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation there is a pleasure in being looked at. Originally, in his Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones. At this point he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects.” Mulvey (1975)

Women are frequently portrayed as an ‘other’ in horror films, and in the context of an alleged patriarchal ideology, the spectacle of the female is there to be looked at in the sense that it represents what Freud identified as the male fear of castration. This means that all forms of cinematic representation are to some extent fetishist in the sense that they are human reconstructions of reality, therefore subject to the psychological fears and repressed anxieties of the human psyche identified by Freud (1905). In King Kong, when the ape looks into the eyes of the central female character, Ann, it is presumed that it is sexually attracted to the woman; Humphries provides an alternative explanation believing that Kong is in fact female, in keeping with the concept of women as ‘other’:

“Kong pursuing Ann is Kong seeing in Ann a kindred spirit; someone exploited by capital and patriarchy. Kong’s ‘love’ for Ann is an early form of female bonding, neglected in favour of its male counterpart.” Humphries (2002: p.24)

This theory identifies both the monster and the women as representative of the male fear of castration, each is symbolic of otherness. The power of the monster may lie not in its castration but in its difference to the dominant image of the human male (Williams in Cook, 1999, page 200) just as the women’s power lies in her difference or otherness in relation to the dominant patriarchal ideology. The monster functions as a spectacle not only for the male audience but also for the female onscreen.

“This reading of the castration scenario then enables Williams to account for several aspects of the classic horror film. The ‘vindictive destruction of the monster’ the frequent  sympathy of the female characters for the plight of the monster, their similar constitution  as an exhibitionist object by the desiring look of the male,”
Cook (1999:p.200)

When the monster is shown through the eyes of a woman it is an identification of their shared difference. Isolated white rural communities in horror films are, by this same logic, constructed as being ‘other’. The ‘monsters’ in The Hills Have Eyes, for example, although technically human, can be interpreted in the same way as King Kong.

“Film monsters should be regarded as embodiments of women’s virginal sexual fantasies-a cross between fear and desire.” Tarratt (p.330)

The theme of otherness and difference and the concept of representation in horror as a fetishist concept is central to the study regarding the representation of the isolated communities.


The Theme of Isolation

The theme of isolation is recuurant in the horror genre. Its origins may be attributed to the intent of the genre itself to ‘horrify’. An isolated setting puts the protagonist in a situation where they must deal with danger themselves without the aid of the mainstream civilised community on which the character had previously depended. .

“Ever since the ghost of Hamlet’s father stalked the battlements of Elsinore castle, the stock in trade of horror romanticism has consisted of the inhabitants, properties and atmosphere of the haunted house.” Tibbetts in Chibnall (2002: p.99)

This convention is manifested in some of horror’s most recognisable scenery, from Carfax Abbey in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) to the eerie Bates Motel in Psycho (1960) but the theme has more significance to this study in reference to the specific films which feature representation of the communities that occupy these isolated settings. Although old concepts of isolation in film do feature monsters or individuals that are isolated from humanity and society, this is not necessarily the cause of their problematic behaviour. Norman Bates’ mental state is induced by his childhood and relationship with his Mother, whereas monsters like Dracula are not products of their environments, but merely manifestations of subconscious fear, therefore devoid of the direct influence of society.

The families in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Hills Have Eyes are both bi-products of an advancing civilisation that leaves behind those who cannot adapt to change. This type of horror in which a ‘normal’ community are contrasted with a rural isolated one offers parallels and contradictions between perceived notions of civilised behaviour and primitive instincts.

“normality in the horror film, has always been represented by the ‘heterosexual monogamous couple, the family, and the social institutions (police, church, armed forces) that support them” Wood in Cook (p198)

The representation of these communities as being significantly different culturally from the characters representing mainstream civilised modern society is similar to the way cinema portrays racial difference. The appearance and language used by the rural characters betrays an institutionalised belief in the superiority of the urbanised, modern society over the "primitive" rural white communities they oppose. This representation can be used to criticise both the institutions and the communities that oppose it ideologically.

“In popular representations as in the world, identity politics is likely to go both ways, to become either a site for the progressive use of diversity or an opportunity for the conservative management of difference within existing power structures.” Willis (1997: page 2)



Analysis

Texts in Context

The three texts on which this study is focused, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hills Have Eyes and The Wicker Man (which will henceforth be referred to as Texas, Hills and Wicker Man respectively) have been selected on the basis of their content, plots, time of creation and tendency to utilise the potential of cinema to offer a critique of capitalism. In each film there is a confrontation between two separate cultures, one of which, on a journey away from home, representing the civilised society from which they came, the other a "other" white community, inhabiting the rural environment, isolated from mainstream society and constructed as culturally opposed to those representing the dominant ideology.

“The convention of the civilised man forced to violence is familiar in most manly movie genres, but rarely has it been presented as skilfully as it has here. The heroes of Deliverance and Hills Have Eyes are given no choice but to fight and kill, attacked suddenly by monstrous villains who seem hardly human” Fenton & Flint (p.120)

The isolated rural communities in each film have been used as a device with which to parody the institutions of patriarchal capitalism (family in Hills and Texas, religion in Wicker Man) whilst the plot of each film also offers criticism of such institutions. (The police in Wicker Man and Hills, U.S. Military in Hills, meat production as extension of farming and rural industry in Texas). This study will focus on scenes from each film that provide an introduction to the isolated communities through dialogue. The events on screen during theses scenes combined with the implications of the dialogue can be analyzed for the purpose of understanding how the identities of these isolated communities are constructed and represented. The study will then consider the ideological concerns raised by the texts, and whether negative representations of rural white communities in cinema as a device to offer critique of capitalist institutions may paradoxically reinforce dominant ideological discourse with regards to the cultural inferiority of rural communities in comparison to their urban counterparts.
Where Beauty meets Beast
In Hills (1977) there is a key scene in which the history of the feral family and how they came to be is revealed. The grandfather of the feral family, Fred, meets the grandfather of the Carters, big Bob. Bob enters Fred’s gas station looking for help only to be shot at by the hillbilly stereotype character Fred, who is dressed in a poorly fitted plaid shirt and worn jeans, Fred then attempts to hang himself as a result of mistaking big Bob Carter for his murderous feral son Jupiter. At this stage the audience are already invited to make assumptions about the rural community and this display of paranoid mistrust. Fred explains to Bob that this rural community was newly constructed in the 1930’s and he had a wife and child, but his wife’s second child was mutated.
FRED: When Martha had this one something went wrong, this thing she give me…something happened. He was so big he came out sideways and almost tore his poor Mother a part, he weighed 20lbs and was hairy as a monkey. When he was ten years old, he was bigger than I was. Accidents were happening all the time, dogs falling in the well, I even found chickens with their heads bit off. Then in August in ‘39 I was in town getting supplies, and the whole damn house burnt to the ground, my little baby girl was a cinder when I found her, but this monster kid wasn’t even singed, I knew he done it, I hit him with a tire iron and I split his face right open.
This mutation is attributed to the fact revealed by Bob’s daughter at the start of the film that the area was used by the military as a nuclear testing range. As this dialogue ends, Fred’s son Jupiter breaks through the glass window of the house, pulls his father out, kills him with a tire iron and then nails him to a door. The dialogue between the two father figures is significant, Fred is a parody of Bob, Bob is an ex police officer and a family man, an authority and representative of the system of law that governs mainstream America. Fred reveals that he too had a family, but it was lost as a result of this mutant child. From the actor’s expression and the script, it is likely that Bob is dubious of the existence of Jupiter, the fact that Fred was willing to attempt to murder his own son can be read as a failure of the family as a capitalist institution, it also encourages the audience to perceive Fred as being more primitive and perhaps murderous than Bob. Earlier in the film Bob refers to his career using racist and derogatory terminology. “25 years I’m a cop in the worst goddamn precinct in Cleveland, niggers shoot arrows at me, hillbillies throw dogs off the roof at me.” Both African-Americans and rural Americans are connected in his speech as being problematic towards the patriarchal, urbanised white ideology that the police uphold. The use of this derogatory language contradicts the potential reading that Bob is less prejudiced or more enlightened than the rural family.
The first meeting in Hills is comparable with a similar scene in Texas in which the ‘civilised’ members of mainstream society come into contact with a member of a family of cannibals. As five fashionable seventies youths travel past a cattle slaughterhouse on their way to visit Franklin’s grandfather’s house in the Texas countryside, after attending a concert, they see a hitchhiker and decide to pick him up.
         
FRANKLIN:         I think we just picked up Dracula.
JERRY:                 Where're you heading, man?
FRANKLIN:         You work at that place?
HITCHHIKER:    Don't.              
PAM:                     How did you get stuck out here?                
HITCHHIKER:    I was at the slaughterhouse.
FRANKLIN:         I got an uncle that works at a slaughterhouse.
HITCHHIKER:    My brother worked there, my grandfather, too. My family's always been in beef.
KIRK:                   a whole family of Draculas.
JERRY:                                Hey man, did you go into that slaughter room or whatever they call it? Where they shoot the cattle with that air gun thing?
HITCHHIKER:    That gun is no good.
FRANKLIN:         I was in there once with my uncle.                  
HITCHHIKER:    With the sledge! That was better. They died better that way.
FRANKILN:         How come? I thought the gun was better.
HITCHHIKER:    Oh no. With the new way people were put out of jobs

The hitchhiker takes a photograph of Franklin, when the young people refuse to pay $2 for it, he sets it alight using some strange powder wrapped in foil, cuts his hand open with a knife then cuts Franklins arm and when he is kicked out the vehicle he paints a strange symbol in blood on its side. Prior to picking up the hitchhiker Pam had been discussing astrology, there is an obvious contrast between the implied belief in magic of the hitchhiker and the girl’s belief in astrology. Humphries identifies this belief in magic as being an extension of the capitalist ideal of owning things or even people.

“it suggests a belief in magic, in the possibility of ‘possessing’ someone, which in turn must be seen as a form of control identical to that of possessing wealth or, by extension, the bodies of the workers whose labour is turned into surplus value. He is no more imbalanced than the girl who believes in the stars and their control over our lives”
 Humphries (2002:p.124)
A similar ironic comparison is at work in British horror film The Wicker Man, in which a Christian Scottish police officer condemns the beliefs of an island of pagans. The first meeting of the mainstream with the marginalised in these films illuminates both differences and paradoxical similarities. Wicker Man provides insight in its opening sequence in which Sergeant Howie arrives at Summers Isle off the West Coast of Scotland. The film depicts the local’s pagan beliefs in contrast to Sergeant Howie’s Christian beliefs, which can be considered as a metaphor for social and political upheaval of the time in regards to challenging the institutions such as religion whose ideology governs the lives of others.

“the conflict between old and new faith was a way of talking about the relationship between the upheavals of the late 1960s – the emergence of youth and ‘counter’ cultures, permissiveness, the possibility of revolution – and the backlash of the 1970s represented, in particular, by the ‘law and order’ agenda of the new Heath government. In The Wicker Man we find a puritanical male authority figure pitted against a Dionysian cult,” Hunt in Chibnall (2002:p.93)

The first shot we see of the island is a flag with an image of the pagan sun god on it bringing attention to the notable difference of the community’s religious beliefs from the mainstream Christian ideology from which they are isolated. The camera pans down to reveal a plane landing on the water, surrounded by rolling Scottish hills reinforcing the feeling of isolation created by the montage of lonely landscape shots which the film opens with. Sergeant Howie rolls down the window and shouts to a small crowd of men gathering at the island’s harbour. The harbour master initially refuses to allow the sergeant on the island as it is private property, as they speak, four more men arrive and join the small crowd of old men as if they have nothing better to do with their time than satisfy idle curiosity. The local men at the harbour are quite old, wear old moth bitten clothes and are unshaven; they have weathered faces and grey hair, each fulfilling the dominant stereotypical image of rural British communities.

As the locals send a dinghy, a montage of the island harbour area is shown. The montage illustrates the significant cultural difference of the community from the culture of the mainland which sergeant Howie represents. A man rides a horse through the street without a saddle or helmet, there are no automobiles visible, the houses are traditional Scottish style built of stone, in front of the houses tropical palm trees grow, young girls open windows and lean out to observe the Sergeants arrival. The wooden dinghy has an eye painted on the side which also seems to be a pagan symbol, when shown immediately after the shot of the women observing the sergeant; it is becomes a symbol to remind the audience that the sergeant is being watched by the curious and ‘primitive’ locals.

Just as in traditional horror where women are constructed as representative of their difference to men so too are the isolated communities depicted in 1970s horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre constructed like women as being ‘other’. The ‘monsters’ in The Hills Have Eyes, although human, can be interpreted in the same way as Williams’ (Cook, 1999, page 200) feminised reading of King Kong as mentioned in the literature review. Although there is no clear moment when the civilised female characters appear to identify with the feral family, this is because as Westernised women they still see the ferals as other, despite they themselves being constructed as being other by the dominant patriarchal American ideology. It is significant that in both versions of Hills the young female feral Ruby identifies with the ‘civilised’ family, through sympathy for the plight of the baby, which suggest that she has accepted the role assigned to her as a female by mainstream society as a protector of children, in both versions abandoning her fellow ferals and family members in favour of assisting the civilised family.

Women function primarily as victims in the originals of Hills and Texas, being raped, tortured, killed, chased and eaten by the primitive cannibal families whose treatment of women and desire to consume them in every sense of the word, is a reflection of the way the capitalist society from which they are excluded, regards women.

The Wicker Man provides a different representation of women, they are not victims in a conventional sense, rather passive aggressors who participate in the deception of an institutionalised authority by order of an eccentric wealthy aristocrat, their victim status exists only in the sense that they have been deceived by Lord Summersisle to participate in an experiment whereby they follow a strange religion and attempt to grow fruit on a remote Scottish island.

This does not mean that the female characters escape sexual objectification, Britt Elkland’s character, the land lords daughter performs a ritualistic mating dance naked, the men at the pub all sing a song in tribute to her sexual talents, there is little talk of women’s contribution to the local society at an authoritarian level, they are subservient to the male order. It is revealed in the school scene that the female children are encouraged to worship the phallus in the form of the traditional maypole. Sgt Howie as a practicing Christian is appalled by this despite the clear parody of the system he left behind in which women have been marginalised in a similar way. His shock is a result of the sexual repression that his culture requires he exercise as a Christian and an institutionalised male of the patriarchal order.

Comparison of 1970’s Horror Films and their 21st Century Remakes

Hills, Texas and Wicker Man were all successful films in their time, and each has also become a cult classic. As mentioned in the literature review, the remaking of such films is a low risk and lucrative area of investment. For these films to achieve success a second time in the 21st century, their content must be relevant to the experiences of modern audiences. It could be argued that some of the issues raised by these films are still relevant today, issues such as failure of the family unit, fear of the unknown, the advance of technology and its effect on the manual workforce, danger of obedience to violent religion and marginalisation of rural communities.  However each of the remakes includes significant alterations to their originals. It is safe to assume that any changes made would be an attempt to make the films more palatable to the tastes of modern audiences.

The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes (2006) considers the fear of nuclear testing more than its original, it starts with a montage of shocking imagery of nuclear explosions and mutant still births, this theme is continued throughout the film as the feral family is replaced by an entire town of cannibals who are also hideously mutated. The inclusion of a more prominent nuclear theme in this version can be read as a reflection of increasing fear of nuclear war in the 21st century. The cause for the existence of the feral community is not a result of a dysfunctional family but entirely the fault of the military, and government for allowing nuclear testing in the American countryside, a point made in a speech by one of the mutants to the father of the stolen baby, Doug Bukowski.

“Your people asked our families to leave. So we hid in the mines, and you brought out your bombs and turned everything to ashes! You destroyed our homes and made us what we've become.” Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Other significant changes made to the plot include a far more frictional relationship between Bob the ex -police officer and his son in law Doug, which is perhaps a reflection of the decomposition of family ideals in the West. The gas pump attendant who tries to save the family in the original deceives them into taking a wrong road in this version which leads to the caravan crashing,  the crash is caused by the military in the original but in this version the cannibals have a specialised device for immobilising vehicles.

The cannibals are more violent, more grotesque and less human in this version; the parody is made less significant between the two families, as the cannibals do not exist in a single family unit but as an entire community. The female cannibal known as Ruby assists the ‘civilised’ family in this film as well as the original, the original film implies that Ruby will join the mainstream society for a new life, in the remake she kills herself and her brother in order to save the life of the ‘civilised’ family’s baby. This selfless act seems less plausible than the ending of the original and is certainly less optimistic in its outlook with regards to the reincorporation of marginalised communities into the mainstream.

Both films end with Doug brutally murdering members of the isolated rural community, the original ends with Doug smashing the skull of the feral named Mars, the screen freezes and turns red, then the credits roll accompanied by chilling music, as the audience realises that the so called civilised family are no different to the ferals who have adopted violence as a means of survival. In the remake, when Doug kills the cannibals and retrieves the baby, there is triumphant fanfare as if he has done something noble. This ending is more in keeping with the Hollywood convention of a happy ending; the final shot is a POV looking at the family through binoculars, thus opening up the possibility of a sequel, but making no conclusions about the issues the film raises at the start with regards to nuclear testing and the American military.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) has many significant changes to plot from its original. All the characters and names are different with the exception of Leatherface, however whereas in the original he wears the skin of his mothers face, in a twisted reference to Freudian psychology, in this version his face is attributed to a skin condition he has had since a child, his mask is made from the skin of an anonymous male victim. The young people in the van are returning from Mexico carrying illegal drugs when they pickup a woman who kills herself and as a result they have to contact the local sheriff who is in fact Leatherface’s brother and also a violent sociopath. This is perhaps an indication that the integrity of the police force in America has become unreliable, to the point where modern cinema audiences will accept the concept of a police sheriff who is a member of a family of murderers. Although the film indicates he may be falsely posing as a police officer, the integrity of the police is still being brought into question.

There are several indications that the rural community are more primitive than the ‘civilised’ youths, Leatherface’s mother sells meat and leaves the food un-refrigerated and covered in flies, it is as if she has no knowledge of basic hygiene despite the fact that purveying meat products is her job. Later the youths encounter a young boy, whose teeth are crooked and eyes are crossed, he hides in the shadows, crawling around like a beast. The rural family is much larger than the four of the original, there are seven plus a baby they have stolen from one of their victims, three of them are women, and their motivation for murder is not clearly attributed to being made redundant by the slaughterhouse. When Erin pleads for mercy the mother of Leatherface says to her “I know your kind, nothing but cruelty and ridicule for my boy, all the time he was growing up’ This perhaps implies that the activities of the murderous family are a direct result of living in an isolated community.

Despite a scene in which the grandson in the rural family assists Erin’s escape from the basement of the house, the representation of rural communities in this film is by no means more positive than in the original. There are no positive rural characters like in the first, local men warning the youths of danger in the area, every rural character turns out to be a member of the murdering family. Characterisation of members of the rural community is brief and vague making narcissistic identification on the part of the audience difficult.”(Modelski in Braudy. p.770)

The Wicker Man

The most notable point of difference in The Wicker Man (2006) from its 1973 original is that the island community is a matriarchy. The island is off the coast of Washington state, America as opposed to Scotland in an effort to draw in more revenue from the prioritised American market. Lord Summersisle is changed to Sister Summersisle, and the men are those who are marginalised in this community, serving only the purpose of procreation and obedience to the will of Sister Summersisle as is explained by one male resident “We procreate because it is the will of the goddess.”

“it would seem reasonable for us to expect more recent forms of horror to reflect the current state of public knowledge and scientific theorizing about sex.” Freeland in Braudy & Cohen (p.750)

The scene in which the protagonist Edward Malus arrives in the harbour area is very similar to its original, the script is maintained almost exactly, but rather than a group of elderly men warning the officer away, it is a group of middle aged women. They wear only clothes made of leather and wool and are very crude in style; the clothing serves as a visual indicator to remind the viewer of the cultural superiority of the culture of mainland America over this primitive colony. There are two men present behind the women, they say nothing but hold a bag which drips with blood, and writhes about as if there is an animal inside. This change to the scene illuminates the subordination of men on the island and also hints at the fact that they belong to a violent community. There are indications that the islanders are inbred, there are several women who look very similar, Malus confuses them with each other, there is also a bizarre pair of blind twins and a man covered in boils. This implies that isolated communities are genetically inferior to those of the mainstream society.

This oppressive matriarchy is far more violent than the community depicted in the original, as is shown when the eyes and mouth of a pilot are sewn shut, and also when Edward Malus (who is the equivalent of Sergeant Howie) resists the will of the locals he is attacked by several members of the community. Edward Malus is a police officer like sergeant Howie; he is not brought to the island on police business but as a result of his ex fiancée who is also the daughter of Sister Summersisle contacting him regarding her supposedly missing child Rowan. The scene in the school is similar however the girls are not asked about the maypole, but the image of the male, rather than answering that the maypole represents the phallic symbol, they say it is men themselves who serve as nothing but representations of the phallus.

Malus, just as Howie in the original is representative of state authority and the institution of law enforcement, the fact he is there on private business it could be argued, excuses the institution by whom he is employed of the violent acts he committed against the women of the island. Malus is not the straight laced, Christian virgin that Sergeant Howie is; Malus suffers from hallucinations, anxiety and is far more violent than Howie. There is no mention of his spiritual beliefs but he uses Christian expletives such as “God Damn it.” In the seventies Howie was a valid example of how a police officer could be, the changes made in the remake to the protagonists character are significant as they are most likely an attempt to make him easier for the audience to identify with. Many Americans suffer from depression, take medication and are un-specific about their exact spiritual beliefs just as Edward Malus is.

The depiction of a microcosm society ruled by women, being dysfunctional, violent and primitive could be considered a reaction to the increasing amounts of women who are achieving positions of power in the 21st century. The matriarchal society is constructed as failing in all the areas that the mainstream patriarchal society of the mainland succeeds and portrays a sexist warning about awarding positions of responsibility and power to females.


Conclusions

The horror films of the 1970s that this study has analyzed all include a community that has been isolated from mainstream society and is then visited by people representative of the mainstream, patriarchal, urbanised capitalist society from which they are marginalised. This style of horror film enables a clear contrast between two opposing cultures and serves the purpose of offering a critique of the dominant ideology and social commentary on a number of institutions that govern the lives of most people living in Western civilisation. What the analysis has shown is that negative representations of those who live on the outskirts of mainstream society, can reinforce the discourse of mainstream society by depicting such cultures and communities as being culturally and even genetically inferior to the culture and people of mainstream society.

The feral family depicted in The Hills Have Eyes (1977) are all negative representations of rural communities, Fred who tries to escape his son and his cannibal family is a negative representation despite trying to assist the Carter family, he is shown to be paranoid and mistrustful, as well as attempting to kill his own child, Fred’s failure as a Father is parodied by Bob Carters failure to protect his family from the cannibals, and his failure as a policeman when he reveals his prejudice for both rural Americans and African-Americans.

The feral female named Ruby helps the Carter family get their baby back, showing instinctive remorse for the culture on which she has been raised and acceptance of her role as a female assigned to her by capitalist patriarchy; at the start of the film she says to Fred that she wants to be a part of mainstream society. Despite her compassion for human life Ruby is a negative rural representation, she has never experienced the lifestyle of mainstream society, yet she still craves it and is willing to help kill her own brother Mars in order to join the ‘civilised’ family and abandon her family and its ‘primitive’ culture.

The film shows that the two families are both essentially savage when forced to rely on their primitive instincts to survive, thus destroying the serenity of the middle class American ideal that the Carter family represented at the start of the film. The mutation of Jupiter and his children is attributed to the United States Military for conducting nuclear experiments in the desert, thus it is the feral family who are in fact the victims, the depiction of these victims of society as aggressors who attack, kill and eat other humans is a paradoxical contrast to the ideals of the capitalist society of which they are victims, capitalism is dependent on consumerism and the feral family take and consume whatever they can without consideration for the moral implications of their actions.

Similar parallels are at work in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The scene in which the young travellers pick up the hitchhiker outside the slaughterhouse offers a contrast between the superstitious beliefs of the seventies youth who talks of astrology and the belief in magic implied by the hitchhiker who ritualistically burns a photograph of Franklin, an attempt at gaining control of someone, in a sense possessing them in the same way capitalism encourages the possession of wealth and things or of workers whose labour can be used to generate wealth.

The Wicker Man offers a parody of mainstream and marginalised religious groups. Sergeant Howie sees the pagan community’s worship of gods in an effort to achieve a more fruitful harvest as insane; however he does not see the similarities between this small community and the Christian society he is representing. The Wicker Man depicts the pagan community as murderous, deceptive and misguided as a result of the aristocratic Lord Summersisle encouraging the local community to follow the ways of the ‘old gods’ as his father had encouraged them to. There is no mention of the rural community resisting the religion being forced on them, or of them using their knowledge of agriculture to remedy failing crops as opposed to belief in superstition and religion. The rural working class community are completely subservient to their authority. Their planned murder of a police sergeant could be interpreted as a working class uprising against institutional authority if it weren’t for the fact they are only involved in the sacrifice out of obedience to aristocracy and to religion.

Changing Representations

“The radicalism of so much horror throughout the 70s can hardly come as a surprise; the political climate militated in favour of dystopic visions of society. Considerably more surprising is the continuation of this trend into the early 90s, in the light of a conservative backlash represented in aspects of the ‘slasher’ movie from the end of the 70s” Humphries (2002:p.138)

This trend Humphries speaks of has continued into the 21st century, and if the radicalism of horror in the 1970s was a reflection of the political climate of the time, it could also be argued that the 21st century remakes of these films are a reflection of the current political climate, and that the films reflect the subconscious fears of modern society.

The fact that all three of the remakes are more violent than their originals is worthy of notation. This can be read as reflecting the rising levels of violent crime reported in both America and Britain or as a reflection of the extreme violence taking place in the Middle East at the hands of the American, Israeli and British military.

The remake of Hills (2006) features the effects of nuclear testing more prominently than the original and may be read as evidence that the threat of nuclear war and the danger of nuclear weapons are still a concern in the collective minds of Western society. The cannibals are not merely one family but an entire community, and are far more mutated and monstrous than those of the original; this makes identification with the rural community difficult for the audience. The grotesque mutation reinforces the fear of nuclear weapons, as it is radiation that has caused the mutation, however depiction of the rural community as monsters dehumanises them, and is therefore a negative representation of a victimised rural community. The female feral Ruby gives her own life to protect the ‘civilised’ in this version thus destroying the potential for uniting the two separate cultures, the violence used by the ‘civilised’ family to protect themselves is glorified whereas the visual language of the original implied it was condemned. There are no positive rural characters in the film.

In the remake of Texas (2003) there are no positive rural characters either, every rural character is a member of the murderous family which is much larger than in the original. The responsibility for the updating of technology in the slaughterhouse being a cause for the family’s marginalisation is not included, the fact that Leather face was bullied in school as a result of a skin condition is shown to be a cause of anger for which the family want revenge, and exact it on those they perceive as belonging to mainstream American culture. One of the ‘primitive’ family is a policeman, this reflects changing attitudes toward institutional authority, although the film is set in the 1970s it still reflects a mistrust of the police, by depicting a renegade redneck posing as a sheriff and killing whoever he chooses without being brought to justice.

The Wicker Man (2006) portrays women as problematic when in a position of power. The matriarchal society is depicted as being entirely inferior to the mainstream American society the islanders are isolated from. The location is changed from Scotland to America in an effort to make the film more relevant to American audiences, and whereas in the original women on the island are subordinate to male domination, in this version the matriarchal society subordinates men as being useful only for breeding and physical labour. This implies that women are less moderate leaders but may also be a reflection of the way women are subordinate in mainstream patriarchal culture.

The community are depicted as being genetically inferior to the people of mainstream America as a result of inbreeding, depicted through the inclusion of multiple sets of twins, one pair of which being blind. The violent oppressive matriarchal society viciously torture and kill Edward Malus who represents patriarchy and law, this may be a reflection of the fear for the increasing power awarded to women as a result of the women’s movements of the 20th century. Depicting a failing matriarchal society through film can be read as symbolic reinforcement of the superiority of the patriarchal society. The failing crops, violent traditions and primitive religion adopted by the locals all combine to constitute a negative representation of a rural community existing outside mainstream capitalist society although in this case with a more gendered focus than the original film.

This study has shown that the horror genre was reinvented during the 1970’s to reflect ideological concerns of the era, and that the 21st century remakes of films from this era are significant as they show that the subconscious anxieties in the collective minds of audiences of the 1970s are still relevant to modern audiences. These remakes also show changing perspectives towards rural communities, they are shown to be more violent, less human and more corrupt than the same characters were in the previous films, this may be because modern audiences demand more violent cinema for entertainment, or it may be a result of increasing mistrust towards any culture or community constructed outside the discourse of the dominant mainstream ideology of urbanised capitalism and Christianity.

These films have used examples of isolated small rural communities as a cinematic device to parody the wrongdoings of mainstream society and its institutions of power. The negative representations of rural communities in The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Wicker Man and their more recent remakes serve the purpose of offering a critique of the dominant Western ideology whilst simultaneously reinforcing the same ideology’s stereotypical views with regards to rural white communities, and the cultural superiority of urban liberal capitalism.



Bibliography

Braudy, L. Cohen, M (eds), 2004 ‘Film Theory and Criticism – introductory readings’ 6th edition. Oxford: University Press

Chomsky, N., 1991/7 ‘Media Control: The spectacular achievements of propaganda,’ The Open Media Pamphlet Series/ Seven stories Press, New York

Cook and Bernink 1999 The Cinema Book’ 2nd ed. London: bfi

Chibnall, S. Petley, (eds)  J. 2002. ‘British Horror Cinema’ London: Routledge

Fenton, H. Flint, D. (ed) British Horror Films of the 1970’s: Ten Years if Terror. 2001. Guildford: Fabpress

Freud, S. 1905. ‘Three essays on the theory of sexuality’. Standard Edition

Francis, D. Henderson, Paul. 2nd ed. Community development and rural issues. Community development foundation publications. 2001

Humphries, R. 2002. ‘The American Horror Film – An Introduction’. Edinburgh: University Press

Hill, J & Gibson, P., 2000. ‘Film Studies – Critical Approaches’ Oxford University Press

Milbourne, P. 1997. Revealing Rural Others. Pinter Press. London

Marx, K., Engels, F. 1968 ‘The Communist Manifesto’ Monthly review press: London.

Mulvey, L: 1975 ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Nelmes (ed), 2003 ‘an introduction to Film Studies’ London Routledge

Stam, R., Miller, T (eds) ‘Film and Theory: an anthology’ 2000 Blackwell: Oxford & Massachusetts

Stoker, B.1897. ‘Dracula’ Wordsworth editions, London

Shelley, M. 1831 ‘Frankenstein’ Wordsworth Editions, London

Tarratt, M., 1995 “Monsters from the Id.” In Film Genre Reader II. Barry Keith Grant, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, (1984),  

Wood, R.1986. ‘Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.’ New York: Columbia University Press

Willis, S.1997. ‘High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film.’ .London: Duke University Press
Williams, L. 1983. ‘When the woman looks’ in Doane, Mellencamp & Williams (eds), ‘Revision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism’ AFI: University Publications of America




Filmography

Alien                                                               Ridley Scott                            1979
The Birds                                                        Alfred Hitchcock                    1963
Cannibal Holocaust                                         Ruggero Deodato                   1980
Dawn of the Dead                                          George.A.Romero                   1978
Dracula                                                            Tod Browning                         1931
Deliverance                                                     John Boorman                         1972
The Exorcist                                                    William Friedkin                     1973
Frankenstein                                                    James Whale                           1931
The Hills Have Eyes                                       Wes Craven                             1977
The Hills Have Eyes                                       Alex Aja                                  2006
The House on Haunted Hill                            William Castle             1958
King Kong                                                      Merian.C.Cooper                    1933
Le Manoir du diable                                       Gerorges Méliès                      1896
Nosferatu                                                        F.W.Murnan                            1922
Psycho                                                             Alfred Hitchcock                    1960
Saw 3                                                              Darren Lynn Bousman            2006
Straw Dogs                                                     Sam Peckinpah                        1971
Star Wars                                                        George Lucas                          1977
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre                       Tobe Hooper                           1974  
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre                       Marcus Nispel                         2003
The Thing from another World                       Christian Nyby                        1951
The Wicker Man                                             Robin Hardy                           1973
The Wicker Man                                             Neil Labute                             2006



Post a Comment