Theatricality in the Horror Film
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A study of monstrous theatricality in scary movies

As is well known, the horror film generally presents a situation where normality is threatened by a monster. From this premise, this book argues that scary movies often create their terrifying effects stylistically and structurally through a radical break with the realism of normality in the form of monstrous theatricality. Theatricality in the horror film expresses itself in many ways. First and foremost, it comes across in the physical performance of monstrosity; the over-the-top performance of a chainsaw-wielding serial killer who performs his nefarious acts to terrify both his victims within the film and the audience in the cinema. Theatrical artifice can also appear as a stagy cemetery with broken-down tombstones and twisted, gnarly trees, or through the use of violently aberrant filmic techniques, or in the oppressive claustrophobia of a single-room setting reminiscent of classical drama. All these are examples of the cinematic theatricality of horror. Any performative element of a film that flaunts its ‘difference’ from what is deemed realistic or normal on screen might qualify as an instance of theatrical artifice, creating an intense affect in the audience. The artificiality of the frightening spectacle is at the heart of the dark pleasures of horror.

The ultimate goal of ‘Theatricality in the Horror Film’ is to suggest that the theatricality of horror cinema echoes the genre’s roots in ancient tragedy. Like Greek tragedy, horror cinema allows spectators to confront their deepest fears within the safe space of the auditorium, thus affording the audience a cathartic experience. In addition to catharsis, the horror film’s dichotomy between the stable status quo of normality and the shockingly disruptive moment of horror also rehearses tragedy’s genealogy famously articulated by Nietzsche: the terrifying carnal pleasures of Dionysian excess formalized through a dialectic confrontation with the static Apollonian principles of order, civility and normality. Tragic theatricality, this book contends, is the essence of horror cinema.

1. Introduction: Of Monsters and Monstration; 2. Horror, Realism and Theatricality; 3. The Theatricality of Monstrous Villainy in Film Adaptations of Horror Plays; 4. The Theatre as Locus Horribilis: Staging the Paradox of Tragic Horror; 5. The Theatricality of Horror: Characters, Unities and Styles; 6. Conclusion: The Theatricality of Horror Spectatorship; Bibliography; Index.



Publié par
Date de parution 28 octobre 2019
Nombre de lectures 15
EAN13 9781785271304
Langue English

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Theatricality in the Horror Film
Theatricality in the Horror Film
A Brief Study on the Dark Pleasures of Screen Artifice
André Loiselle
Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
This edition first published in UK and USA 2020
75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK
or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA
Copyright © André Loiselle 2020
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Library of Congress Control Number: 2019949651
ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-128-1 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78527-128-8 (Hbk)
This title is also available as an e-book.
List of Illustrations
1. Introduction: Of Monsters and Monstration
2. Horror, Realism and Theatricality
3. The Theatricality of Monstrous Villainy in Film Adaptations of Horror Plays
4. The Theater as Locus Horribilis: Staging the Paradox of Tragic Horror
5. The Theatricality of Horror: Characters, Unities and Styles
6. Conclusion: The Theatricality of Horror Spectatorship
1.1 Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates dressed up as Mother in Psycho
2.1 The stills that close Night of the Living Dead evoke actual horrors outside the parameters of the scary movie
2.2 Michael Rooker as a Brandoesque rebel in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
3.1 Robert Englund as Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
3.2 The Villain in full theatrical view compared to the victim’s close-up in Murder in the Red Barn
3.3 Juxtaposed shots of outdoors normality and indoors satanical madness in Brimstone and Treacle
3.4 Rhoda’s abnormal doll-like plastic perfection in The Bad Seed
4.1 The gory spectacle of murder staged by the Golem in The Limehouse Golem
4.2 The final shot of The Gallows
5.1 Theatrical crucifixion in The Silence of the Lambs
5.2 The righteously vengeful Punch in Dolls (1987)
5.3 From normality to horror in Event Horizon (1997)
5.4 The influential stylistic artifice of The House of Usher (1960)
5.5 The theatricality of torture in Torture Chamber (2013)
5.6 Montage and viral gossip create the monster in Cry_Wolf (2005)
6.1 The terrified audience of Paranormal Activity
Chapter 1
Let us begin this brief study on theatricality in the horror film with a question on etymology and syntagmatics, 1 however pedantic it might seem. If, as Robin Wood has famously suggested, the horror film can be summarized as “normality is threatened by the monster” (Wood 1979 , 14), then how does the syntagma “monster” signify its threatening difference from the syntagma “normality”? While there are many definitions of what a monster is, including Jacques Derrida’s statement that “a monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name” (Derrida & Weber 1995 , 386), etymologically the term is specifically related to the notion of being put on display. Derived from the Latin monstrare , the word “monster” connotes the state of being shown. The term is also associated to monere , “to warn”: the monster is a warning sign of impending disaster (Huet 2000 , 87). The term “monster” therefore is recognizable as a signifier of threatening ostentation that brazenly challenges “normality,” which, by definition, is unremarkable, banal and commonplace. As Ernest Mathijs puts it, “ostentation certainly characterizes every monster role” (Mathijs 2012 , 139). The monster stands out in all its spectacular abnormality before the appalled gaze of the “normal” observer who sees it as an omen of terrible things to come. The monster is often a weird creature from some strange land. But it does not have to be. It might be an ordinary person, an everyday object or merely a vague impression. Whatever it is, however, the monster ostentatiously appears at some critical point in the film as an aberrant display that threatens mundane reality . Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) might look perfectly normal through most of Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). But at the climatic moment of horror, he emerges as the grotesquely bewigged embodiment of abnormality, shocking everyone on screen and in the cinema ( Figure 1.1 ).

Figure 1.1 Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates dressed up as Mother in Psycho.

The term “monster” is also a close relative of the narratological term “monstration, ” used primarily by historians of early cinema, such as André Gaudreault, to explain cinema’s relationship to the theater, and its departure from it. In his book Du littéraire au filmique: Système du récit (1988), Gaudreault argues that film creates its meaning through a combination of two broad techniques: monstration, or showing in a continuous shot, and narration, or the juxtaposition of shots through editing. Monstration is the aspect of cinema that links it most directly to theater. In fact, what Gaudreault calls profilmic monstration “is the equivalent on film of the monstrative work performed on stage” (Gaudreault 1988 , 121). 2 Although certain types of filmographic monstration, like variable framing, differ from traditional theatrical staging, monstration on stage and in film share the notion of the unity of time and space. But, unlike the theater, Gaudreault continues, film can escape the limits of monstration through narration or montage, which allows it to move freely across time and space. Gaudreault writes,

Although filmographic monstration […] can detach itself from profilmic monstration , although it can become autonomous and add a discursive layer to the profilmic, it is still nailed to the hic et nunc of the enunciation […] It is impossible for filmographic monstration to achieve what is so simple for the filmographic narrator: namely, to move instantaneously ( time ) from one place ( space ) to another. (123, emphasis in the original)
Monstration, therefore, is the aspect of film that can most readily be labeled “theatrical,” for it is the aspect of the cinematic text that achieves its effects primarily through a straightforward showing within the unity of time and space of a scene. Given the close relation between monster and monstration , and given that monstration is an instance of the theatrical within the cinematic, it follows that the presence of the monster in the horror film is likely to operate as an instance of monstrative theatricality. In other words, the emergence of the monster in the horror film interrupts the narrative flow of the film as theatrical monstration disrupts the straightforward telling of the normal characters’ stories and imposes the terrifying regime of showing on the spectator, who is suddenly trapped in the here and now of the horrifying spectacle from which there is no easy narrative escape.
This moment of monstrous monstration on film corresponds to a process of stylistic transformation that dates back to at least the stage precursor of the horror film: the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. In their book Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (2002), Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson argue that horror plays performed at Paris’s Théâtre du Grand-Guignol from the late nineteenth century to the theater’s closure in the early 1960s generally oscillated in style between naturalism and melodrama. The former would prevail during most of the drama, as the “normal” story would unfold, until the “moment of horror” when the tone would switch drastically to melodramatic dread. “It is at these moments that any pretense of naturalism is finally abandoned and the full force of stylized melodrama is brought to bear on the performance,” say Hand and Wilson. The moment of horror represents, through stylistic shift, “a journey which leads from bourgeois security to mortal danger, from the rational to the insane, from—in effect—Naturalism to Melodrama” (Hand and Wilson 2002 , 37–38). In this book, I will argue that a similar shift operates in the horror film. At moments of horror, the scary movie replicates the theatricality of stylized melodrama, breaking with the naturalism or realism of narrative normality. In Chapters 2 and 3 , I will further discuss the ramifications of the term “melodrama” for the study of theatricality in the horror film.
Theatricality in the horror film expresses itself in many ways. First and foremost, it comes across in the physical performance of monstrosity, where its size and broad histrionics often stunningly clash with discreetly diminutive normality. But it also manifests itself through the depiction of the sites of horror—the locus horribilis . Several horror films actually use the theater as a creepy setting whose artifice is conducive to terror. But even in seemingly “normal̶

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