(Visual) Notes on Culture
  Book Review: HORROR FILMS OF THE 1980S
Horror Films of the 1980s
John Kenneth Muir
McFarland Publishers, 2007

Also, order at: 800-253-2187

Horror film genre publication has historically been dominated by nostalgic, appreciative writings about the so-called "Golden Age," a malleable distinction that has grown and shrunk over the years. Likewise, academic writing about horror films has centered predominately on famous, readily available films, though assessed to very different ends . Muir's book looks to the hitherto overlooked realm of the 1980s. Though many of the 300+ films discussed have been considered elsewhere, particularly in books and articles on the "slasher" or "stalker" subgenre, the greatest strength of Horror Films of the 1980s is its willingness to drudge the depths - indeed, Muir admits that part of the whole game is to find those undiscovered gems that simply have to exist in a decade of such frenzied output. In the final analysis, it is hard to say whether the films reviewed provide much ammunition for the film canons of tomorrow, but the whole act does something very valuable for film scholarship on the whole.

Horror Films of the 1980s is a companion piece to Muir's celebrated Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland, 2002), albeit with important improvements. The earlier tome suffered from overlong plot analyses, a number of unfortunately terse reviews, and a slightly less panoramic view of the decade. Horror Films of the 1980s fleshes out the format by covering more films, with more space, and with a greater commitment to critical assessment.

Muir is at his best when he contextualizes films and their creators. Parts I and II are the most important of the book, as they provide a substantial narrative history of the genre and show how it interacted with various historical junctures. These 300+ horror films all wrestle, in some way, with the economic, cultural, and political shifts of the age of Reagan. Ronald Reagan looms like a grim pantocrator over the proceedings in much the same way that Nixon and his scandals did over zeitgeist of the 1970s. As Muir notes throughout, Reagan's Janus-like fluidity, militarism, and leadership of a nation on the brink color the films in question.

But the cultural history presented in the remaining 700 pages weaves a subtler tale for the patient. Muir's total presentation of the horror movies of the age is, on a deeper level, a phenomenology of the historical process of the horror films of the 1980s. Let me explain. For example, the book's relative lack of a democratically selected lineup of international titles first struck me as a problem...this many horror films, yet so few from the rest of the world (other than Italy)! Then it hit me...Muir watched, assessed, and presented the films in the historical milieu in which they'd most likely be encountered for an American viewer. In most cases, the film-as-discussed was the version (in the case of films with multiple edits) most readily available on video store shelves in the United States. The 1980s saw a monumental shift in the way that motion pictures were consumed. The 1970s were the last decade of a more ritualistically communal type of film-going. In fact, before the 1980s, seeing a film was a collective, public, and social experience. Yet the widespread dissemination of the VCR and laserdisc player in the 1980s meant that films found a new, lasting home in the home. This is not to say that watching horror films of this era is meant to be a solitary activity - indeed, one only imagine that a film like Home Sweet Home (1980) is possible to watch with a group of good-humored friends - but rather one based more on the space of the home. Further, the films presented are a good selection of readily available works that would have been circulating in most parts of the United States. Again, to clarify, Muir's book is as important for its structural organization - films as American viewers would have been able to access them in the 1980s - as it is for the holes it fills in genre scholarship.

The book is a behemoth, which is slightly problematic. Its design is appropriate for reference libraries, but renders solitary reading difficult. At around 830 pages, it could do with a more economical typeface, better formating, and a more sleek presentation overall. Unfortunately, as with any book of this length, there are errors (most lamentably, a misspelling of my own name on page xiv) and omissions. With so many titles reviewed, what immediately comes to mind are the movies that are missing. For starters, I would very much like to read what Muir thinks about Paperhouse (1988) or Dream Demon (also 1988).

Horror Films of the 1980s is a welcome, improved companion to Horror Films of the 1970s. While the horror films in question are perhaps less immediately important to the genre writ large, they still serve as an invaluable window into an America in crisis.
  Optimism for American Arts Funding
The "arts" (here used primarily for works of performance, film, and installation, though also applicable to the more traditional plastic arts) in America are funded by a combination of public and private money. Most of this money is privately controlled. Rich individuals, personal endowments, individual legacy grants (the Kenan Fund, for example), and corporations in search of a beneficial public image all surrender money to impractical cultural expression.

I worked at the John F. Kennedy Center for a brief time, during which I got a first-hand taste of how performances were funded. A budget that covered all aspects of booking, presentation, and payment was drafted before funds were sought from a number of private companies, fellowship competitions, and philanthropic foundations. These performances recuperated part of their losses in ticket sales, but this top-down funding ultimately helped to ensure that the presenting organization remained out of the red. Performing arts institutions that rely booking diverse acts are fragile in that they constantly have to seek funding, often for a year or two in advance of a performance.

Dana Gioia, director of the National Endowment for the Arts - which, though important, has been made an increasingly neutered entity in our times - likes the American model for arts funding. There are some advantages. In theory, there are more ways to get money and more circulating funds overall. Yet with more interests to serve, the act of programming for variety becomes more delicate. Whose bottom line is served? The public, presenting organization, performance underwriters, etc?

Arts are funded through national funds throughout much of the European Union. This happens primarily on the national level, though the general economic conditions for this funding are still dependent on monetary and financial currents on a larger stage. France provides a large amount of state support for artists, filmmakers, and writers...it even has an entity to help bolster and regulate the native tongue! Britain has a number of arts councils, serving a number of constituencies, and boasts what is probably the most adeptly-run film/cultural organization in the west (the BFI). In these nations, the public is implicitly charged with promoting, maintaining, and participating in the forging of a national identity.

The American model does not strongly lend itself to the promotion of national identity...historically, this has been the realm of the private sector. Our national "master narrative" is so rife with gumption, pragmatic philosophy, tales of individual success, and a distrust of civil institutions that it would be a hard-sell to change existing parameters. I am not sure that I am convinced one way or another as to which model - ours' or the European - is preferable, only that American national identity is slightly more fragmented and obscured as a result of widespread indifference on the part of the public.
  Writing about Buildings: Nikolaus Pevsner, Part II
Nikolaus Pevsner remains known to us because of his life in publishing. Many architects publish works of theory and history as a compliment to their building careers. Famously, Robert Venturi and his retinue were able to muster support for their brand of what was to become known as postmodernism by way of their lauded study Learning From Las Vegas (1972, subsequently revised).

Pevsner was not a practicing architect as such, but rather imparted enthusiasm through his passion for buildings into teaching and writing. While not quite a "popularizer" of architecture, he was definitely a spokesperson for several movements or impulses. An Outline of European Architecture (1943, though later revised and updated about as many times as The Bible) and The Sources of Modern Design (this also has many editions) are his most famous survey works. An Outline of European Architecture is a standard, general text in the history of Western buildings and is an outstanding example of Pevsner's ability to synthesize the general - the totatlity of the Western architectural experience - with the specific - an exploration of how specific techniques and materials combine to make each building a unique entity within several larger ordering systems. His work on Modern Design (also in Pioneers of Modern Design) shows his avowed interest for what were then the buildings of the contemporary vanguard. He has been criticized for his once-held view that the generation of ultra-modern architects who thrived during his study - Le Corbusier, the designers at the Bauhaus, etc - were the logical "end point" to the evolution of architecture...in short that "Modern" architecture was almost the last possible word in building design. The thesis remains fascinating.

Major, individual volumes aside, Pevsner's name will forever be attached to his particular series of "Architectural Guides." In 1951, he began his exhaustive history and guide to English buildings backed by Penguin books. Though still a practicing academic, he took trips throughout the entire isles and likely saw more buildings than anybody else of his day. His guides provide minute details and informed opinion on all manner of building - landmark, vernacular, or new - in a given geographical range.

My own experience is primarily with his volume on Cambridgeshire. During the Summer of 2004, I was a student at Christ's college in central Cambridge and was totally surrounded by interesting buildings. Pevsner's guide, though at that time slightly out of date, was an incredibly useful way of orienting myself to the city. I was able to learn all manner of arcane facts about the colleges and commercial spaces of the city.

Pevsner's achievement is unbelievable. A new generation of scholars has continued his chronicle of the buildings of England. Thanks to Yale University Press, we can keep abreast of their work.
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