13/11/2018

Post-Theory Horror

She’s not a final girl, exactly, but the Mennonite Susie Bannion that you meet at the beginning, obviously isn’t the person that you have at the end of the film. I think what I would say about it is, in most horror films, that main character is just the object of the violence of the film, of the threat of the film. We wanted Susie to be sometimes, and certainly by the end, the subject of the horror of the film. To me that distinction is a pretty great one.” - David Kajganich

The term post-horror” will throw up 511,000,000 results when you type it into Google. The web is lousy with reviews, listicles and think pieces that use it. It’s not entirely clear what the post” thing is about, what these genre films have transcended or are otherwise following in the wake. The obvious/glib/mostly true answer is that they don’t bother being scary, where pre-post-horror films were mostly preoccupied with terrifying their audiences. A couple of upcoming releases I saw at last month’s London Film Festival (one of which arrives in UK cinemas this week, the other of which might be a trickier prospect to sell to audiences ) suggest that the missing word in the term is theory.”

The deck was stacked against Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake from the jump. Yet the director made all the right noises about his take on the cult classic Dario Argento film: he talked about it being a beloved movie from his formative filmgoing years, he was going to do a different take which would involve the fraught political situation of the original’s seventies Berlin setting, Tilda Swinton was going to play an old man in it, and Thom Yorke was to provide the soundtrack. Plus the director was just coming off the back of his Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name.

Nevertheless, the film is a dud. Even accounting for my getting up at 6am to travel in for its screening at the Leicester Square Cineworld, my attention could not be held for the full two-and-a-half-hour running time. Guadagnino’s film meanders, forgetting for large portions that its main plot involves a dance school run by literal witches whose performances double as rituals, and instead focussing on the aforementioned Swinton-as-old-man’s lingering shame over failing to save his dead wife from the Nazis. The gestures towards the Baader-Meinhoff Group and such turn out to be entirely airless. The backstory of Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannon, who abandoned her Amish family to become a dancer using her natural aptitude while her mother died of a mysterious illness, is similarly without weight. There is little visual ingenuity, narrative intrigue, or compelling themes. And, of course, it’s not particularly scary. Taylor Antrim took a lot of stick online for his clowning on Suspiria and the recent Netflix Haunting of Hill House series, but he’s mostly on point when he asks where horror movies have gone in 2018, and especially when he takes the likes of the new Halloween to task for cynically” invoking a vision of female empowerment.”

Most of the features slapped with the post-horror tag are those where the filmmaker, studio, or critics who get a first look and thus first chance to define the movie’s reception to a certain degree, insist are not just horror films. In most cases what this means is that the films make their themes or allusions explicit, ala everyone yelling at Jamie Lee Curtis that she has PTSD in the new Halloween or the internet interpreters tripping over their dicks trying to explain to you that, actually, the true horror in Hereditary is trauma and grief (alongside the literal Satan-worshipping cult at the end (whoops, spoilers?)).

This is a misunderstanding of what horror films, and genre fiction on the whole, has traditionally done throughout the history of popular culture, ie to reflect the fears and anxieties clutched from the zeitgeist and wrestled into the form of a noir detective plot or slasher flick. We now have as many filmmakers whose template for a horror film is Adam Simon’s documentary American Nightmare, which lays bare how the genre movies coming out of the states in the sixties and seventies reflected the upheaval of the same period, or Carol J Clover’s seminal academic text Men, Women, and Chain Saws.

Having seen the film, it’s entirely unsurprising that Suspiria screenwriter David Kajganich — who previously collaborated with the director on his worst film, A Bigger Splash, which also remade an older movie but never satisfyingly brings together its many promising elements — invoked Clover’s book, where the term Final Girl” originated, as an inspiration on the film. Instead of ever bothering to be transgressive, horrifying, or somehow insightful when it comes to its core concepts of womanhood, witchcraft and trauma, Kajganich’s script instead includes an improbably inelegant #BelieveWomen speech at the bloody climax, Dakota Johnson’s wolf-in-ingenue’s-clothing (who joins the school and immediately supplants one of the other students as the coven’s favourite) gasps that performing is what she imagines sex feels like (a line which only could’ve been written by a man and which is nowhere near as fun or provocative as, say, the You’re killing people!” No, I’m killing boys” exchange from Jennifer’s Body, a nominally more mainstream and conventional movie), and is otherwise simply dull.

Suspiria is the nadir of post-theory horror. There’s a laugh line about Lacan in it, for fuck’s sake. Texts such as Clover’s pull apart the generic tropes of a genre to analyse how it might reflect cultural, societal, and (especially in terms of horror) gendered norms; they are not Syd Field-style screenwriting manuals which provide a helpful way of making a feminist horror movie. It cannot be overstated how much Suspiria is a film made by pseudo-intellectual men — although, admittedly, one of the few moments of dark humour and genuine witchy mischief in the film is when the coven entrance a pair of cops who visit the school and force them to strip so they can laugh at the size of their knobs — about women.

Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, meanwhile, is similarly guided by theory but is quite good, actually. In this case it is not Clover’s feminist critique of the slasher film which provides the inspiration, but the well-worn intellectual bromide of hauntology. It’s a term which originated with Derrida, but is now better recognised by the post-war Britain was odd, eh?” vein of online ephemera (think Scarfolk), music (exemplified by the Ghost Box record label) and veneration of creepy seventies kids shows (The Changes, Children of the Stone). Lead initially by the dearly-departed theorist Mark Fisher, hauntology has transitioned from affect to aesthetic, one which Strickland deploys ably and not without self-awareness.

Where his previous features as director have been similarly postmodern and self-reflexive — Berberian Sound Studio centred on Toby Jones’s sound designer going mad while working on a giallo; The Duke of Burgundy was a conscious tribute to Spanish genre filmmaker Jess Franco — and with more than a hint of the hauntological to them, In Fabric is the first of Strickland’s films that could be termed post-theory horror. A sort of absurdist, blackly comic psychosexual (like Call Me By Your Name before it, Suspiria feels comparably sexless to the point of conservatism) portmanteau film that is nonetheless still genuinely frightening in places, it links two stories by dint of a cursed dress bought from a bizarro department store.

In the first half, we follow Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a recently-divorced mother getting back into the dating game and struggling to accept her teenage son’s relationship with a much older lover, played by Gwendoline Christie. She buys the dress and finds it both aids her in her quest to find a new man, whilst also attracting unwelcome attention from a vicious dog and appearing to her in ghostly visions at night. In the second, washing machine repairman Leo Bill ends up with the dress on his stag do, and it continues to haunt him (and his anxieties over his masculinity) as he loses his job and tries to keep his relationship together. The stories are connected not only by the dress, but also Julian Barratt and Steve Oram doing a wonderfully weird double-act as bank managers, and the store the dress comes from.

Strickland pays close attention to recreating the style of sixties and seventies television ads for local businesses in the interstitial scenes, which feature the denizens of the store beckoning viewers to their Christmas sales from an old cathode-ray-tube set. There are plenty more hauntological nods throughout In Fabric — the melodramatic giallo pitch of its surreal moments, the simmering synth soundtrack, the Tales of the Unexpected narrative turns wherein moments of weirdness erupt in the most domestic settings, and its chintzy practical effects with the seemingly sentient dress — but the focus on period branding, CRT television warping and the like is especially acute.

Why does In Fabric succeed when Suspiria fails? The self-seriousness is certainly part of it. Besides the moment with the knobs I mentioned earlier, and a bleakly hilarious clean-up after the film’s finale, there’s little humour in Guadagnino’s remake. There’s very little personality at all, or any successful moments of emotional connection (which is an issue when Suspiria’s B-plot, and its final shot, are banking on there being such a connection). It’s slow, it’s boring, and it feels like it’s explaining to you why it’s a feminist take on Suspiria, without ever really being a feminist take on Suspiria. Like Hereditary, It Comes At Night, or The Witch, it tries to be both a text and an analysis of a text at once, and fails in the process.

Strickland’s film, meanwhile, feels like it’s in on the joke, and expects its audience to be on the same level. Any time a poorly-matted scary hand bursts from the corner of the screen over images of a fashion catalogue, complete with jump-scare stab of synth, it’s supposed to be laughed at. It takes a hyper-serious intellectual concept, usually discussed while one strokes his chin (is it possible to stroke your chin and write a Quietus article at the same time?), and does something with. It more successfully creates a reciprocal relationship between text and theory, each feeding into the other in a mutually-enriching process, instead of expecting you to be impressed that it read the blurb of House of Psychotic Women in the BFI bookshop once.


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