Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on July 15, 2012
Bruce Kawin is a widely published scholar, film historian, and poet. As Professor of English and Film at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he has influenced many careers. Some 25 years ago, Dayton Taylor, the producer of Habit (1995) and Wendigo (2001), got the idea for his three-dimensional imaging Timetrack® camera system while learning about Eadweard Muybridge in Kawin’s class. (In 1877 Muybridge captured continuous motion of a horse by setting up twenty-four cameras in a row along a racing track.) More recently, both Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine (2010) and Drew Goddard, director of Cabin in the Woods (2011), have cited him as an influence. In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I took my fair share of classes from Kawin and later did a stint as his T.A. and projectionist, and he played a pivotal role in my path toward cinema literacy. Kawin had a reputation among the students as being a demanding teacher. Kawin was not afraid to flunk people who did not show up or do the assigned work, thus he has had his fair share of detractors. Kawin’s encyclopedic knowledge and keen attention to detail could be daunting to students used to fudging their answers. In his class, if you spelled Gregg Toland’s name with only one “g,” or only knew him as the cinematographer of Citizen Kane (1941) without being able to link him to Mad Love (1935), your grade would suffer. For Kawin, history and connections are both important. It is also one of many reasons why serious lovers of the horror genre have reason to rejoice, because here now is a book that fuses Kawin’s keen intellect and attention to detail with his passion for monster movies.
Horror and the Horror Film is not a dry textbook full of academic abstractions. Kawin’s preface sets the tone in the very first sentence: “I have a blood disorder similar to hemophilia, and my father was a hunchback.” This is going to be personal. Then there’s this from Part 1: “The range of the creative horror image is potentially endless. We may even need it and be drawn to it. The circle of civilization surrounds the fire where stories are told, with the dark at its back – even if the fire has become the screen” (p. 3). With that, you know this book will also be ambitious in its scope, with serious things to say about who we are. To then give but one example of how comprehensive and accessible this book will be, Kawin’s section on Composite Monsters: Island of Lost Souls and The Fly starts with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and goes all the way on to The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009). Even more impressive than the wide range and scope of titles is how well organized they are into a taxonomy that makes sense and is richly detailed with accompanying notes, film citations, selected bibliography, and an exhaustive index. In his chapter on Supernatural Monsters, Kawin writes about Nosferatu‘s diversions from Stoker’s novel and how “the makers of Nosferatu – the 1922 film that most forcefully established the sub-subgenre – at least had the excuse that they were trying to conceal the source to which they didn’t have the rights” (p. 98). Readers who then flip to the back of the book for that sentences endnote will also find out that, “The first film adaptation of Stoker’s novel, also unauthorized, is now lost. It was Drakula, directed in Hungary in 1921 by Karóly Lajthay” (p. 214).
Horror and the Horror Film, is not a book of trivia. It is a book full of history, organized by a true master of detail who cares deeply about the subject. Kawin makes it very clear that the horror genre is singular in its attraction to dreams and nightmares, which is to say that it appeals to our unconscious. As such, these films contain keys to our being and may even have the capability to do more. Kawin is an excellent tour-guide through an otherwise messy swamp, and he believes that there “are times when horror can heal” (p. 70). Horror and the Horror Film provides an important map to guide us through the darkness and bring illumination to the unknown.
I emailed Kawin some questions, which he has been kind enough to answer below:
With so many published books to your credit, if you had to select only five to put into a time-capsule, which ones would you choose and why?
Kawin: I’d choose the horror book, my three books on narrative theory, and my forthcoming book of poems. So I’d pick Telling it Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film, because it’s full of interesting ideas about time and language; Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film, because it introduced a useful way of looking at narration in film and because so many readers have liked it; The Mind of the Novel: Reflexive Fiction and the Ineffable, because it’s so ambitious, an unusual book that’s clear about the problem of trying to talk about things that can’t be put into words; Horror and the Horror Film, because I love horror movies and feel this book does them justice; and Love If We Can Stand It, because it contains my best poems, took more than 40 years to write, and was extremely hard to publish.
How long did it take you to write Horror and the Horror Film?
Kawin: I started thinking about the book in 1982, so altogether I was working on it for 30 years. Once I had figured out the structure, it took five years to write the book and another year to polish and publish the final draft. The book went through six drafts. It was rejected by nine American publishers (some thought there was no market for another book on horror, some just didn’t get it, and some disliked the way I didn’t concentrate on earlier horror criticism and theory), but I was lucky enough to find a good publisher in London. Next year that same publisher, Anthem Press, will bring out my selected film essays and interviews. And an affiliate of Anthem, Thames River Press, will bring out my poems in September.
When did you first teach a class on horror films, and how has it changed over the years?
Kawin: I don’t remember when I started teaching horror at CU, but it could have been as early as 1982. At first it was a chronological survey of the genre in a large lecture. The last time I taught it, about 3 years ago, it was a special topics class for about 25 students, and I spent more time than usual on the problem of realism in the horror film, showed a couple of horror documentaries, and upset the students with showings of Stan Brakhage’s autopsy film, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, and a docudrama on the medical atrocities perpetrated by Japan’s Unit 731 in Manchuria, Black Sun 731. The new students wanted to be warned if a film might upset them. The older students had a more wide-ranging enthusiasm for horror, though Black Sun 731 upset some of them too. It’s not a film I recommend everyone run out and watch, though it does belong in a comprehensive study of the genre, which is what a good horror film class is. What I don’t show are the Italian cannibal movies, because of their onscreen abuse of animals.
On the back cover of Horror and the Horror Film it says that the book will “be a great asset to film scholars, horror enthusiasts, and readers yet to be convinced of the importance of the genre.” Among those in the very last category there are people who are not only squeamish, but also conflate the act of seeing negative visual imagery into being a negative act in-and-of-itself. Or, put another way, once something is seen it cannot be unseen. Have you ever watched a horror film that was so disturbing you felt somehow complicit in its existence and immediately regretted the act of watching it?
Kawin: I felt that way about Cannibal Holocaust.
Have you ever been close to someone who thought of horror films as mostly unethical garbage and, if so, how did you bridge the gap?
Kawin: Sure. Some people just don’t like horror films. The only way to bridge the gap is in terms of the artistic achievements of the horror films you feel your friend will be able to tolerate, assuming that the appreciation will be stronger than the revulsion. But don’t push it. Friends learn to respect each other’s dislikes, enthusiasms, obsessions, and, in general, taste. But that doesn’t mean they have to share those. I suggest introducing a non-horror person to the genre with an interesting, moving, profound, and relatively nonviolent horror film like The Curse of the Cat People, or something whose beauty is inseparable from its horror, like Vampyr, so they can see what horror’s about without feeling assaulted.
You cite over 350 horror films in your book. There are a lot of published items revolving around horror films, but one look at your index provides an immediate clue as to why your book is going to be very different beast than any of the many fanboy works currently in circulation. In your book there are 19 pages I can go to that discuss “cinematic problems and solutions.” The next word down from that in the index? “Civilization” (14 pages). Clearly, this book will deliver on its promise of being “a mature appreciation of horror films along with a comprehensive view…” But horror is horror, so any squeamish readers who think this will be a dry academic text will be in for some eye-widening surprises. They will risk, as you phrase it, “feeling awe at the awful.” With that in mind, what words of encouragement do you have to offer readers struggling through, to give only one example, the passages where you recount, in detail, the atrocities committed by Ed Gein?
Kawin: At the beginning I warn the reader that the book is, at times, gruesome. I feel it’s worth confronting and learning from the detailed horrors in the book, whether they’re cinematic or come from the real world. You can’t make an omelet without using eggs; horror is an essential part of horror analysis. Examining horror as directly as possible is part of the book’s strategy. It is also a demand placed on the horror viewer: to see well. Some people will find this book as upsetting as a strong horror film, and that’s all right. I’m glad it lives up to the intensity and topics of the genre. The book is vivid and clear throughout, and that means that the horrors are in focus too. One friend of mine repeatedly read and suggested improvements for most of the book but couldn’t finish the section about human monsters because the idea upset her. In her words, “I did start to read the Human Monsters section, but I had to quit . . . because I knew that supernatural and other non-human monsters weren’t real, but human monsters as bad as any in a film do exist, and I couldn’t distance myself from them.“ I think her experience is significant, and I am grateful that she read as much as she did.
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