Tuesday 4 October 2022

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema - Bruce Hodsdon continues his series - 6 (2) Hitchcock, Romero and art-horror

The series on the 60 years international of art cinema 1960-2020 by Bruce Hodsdon continues with thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock, George Romero and Art-Horror

These notes are accompanied by a set of summary table and decadal lists of art film directors 1970-2020 (click to link)  which contain 5 lists 1970-2020 including a list of women art film directors over the full 60 years from 1960),  

The sixties is the subject of an on-going separate annotated listing of directors in part 6 divided by nation-states in multiple sections.  

Alfred Hitchcock

The sixties, Paul Monaco contends, was a decade in which a fundamentally new aesthetic emerged in narrative cinema worldwide, both in mainstream and art cinemas. In Hollywood, changes in types of characters and of film content could be accounted for by reference to the newly emergent youth culture in the mid-late 60s. The new aesthetics, Monaco concludes, cannot be explained in the same way. He identifies specific “landmark movies” some provoking immediate attention, others for the potential they opened up. What Monaco refers to as “the new aesthetic of a cinema of sensation” made an initial appearance in Psycho (1960). As he notes “Psycho breaks entirely from the demands of classical Hollywood film that placed primacy on the narrative...characters scripted as opposing forces guiding the viewer” (190).  As Phil Hardy concludes, “it is Hitchcock's uncanny technical skill and diabolically mocking wit that makes Psycho so irresistible.”

"...the infamous shower scene..." Janet Leigh, Psycho

What was more immediately apparent in the infamous shower scene is the way Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) and Saul Bass mobilised montage in a viscerally shocking form of “pure cinema”. Raymond Durgnat described it as “Stravinsky-like,” comparing Psycho's far-reaching impact on modern American culture to the impact of the first performances in Paris of the composer's modernist 'The Rite of Spring' in 1913 (quoted Monaco 190). Further, there is the film's subversive killing-off of the heroine in the first third of the film and the unsettlingly empathetic characterisation of Norman Bates, in effect to make us 'become' Norman.“ This means that the film's central protagonist, in whose psyche the major  characters are united, is the spectator...Lila's exploration of the Bates' mansion is our exploration of Norman's psyche” (Michael Grant, Cook & Bernink eds. 205), a process that binds the viewer and spectacle together is more explicitly confronted by Michael Powell in Peeping Tom. Hitch appears to have had the idea of casting Anthony Perkins, a total departure from the unsympathetic Bates' persona in Robert Bloch's novel based on the middle-aged ghoulish serial killer, Ed Gein.  

Anthony Perkins, Psycho

As other filmmakers were doing, Hitchcock pointedly took over control of Psycho from the then increasingly weakened studio system. He had been taken by the profitability of low budget horror films produced by Hammer and AIP. In the circumstances he wondered if he could do better with a quality product. Paramount was initially opposed to the idea, striking a deal only after Hitch offered to finance it himself with the studio acting only as distributor. (Mogg 156)

Much of Psycho's “jagged modernity and jolting terror,” reaching primal scream intensity with the murders, comes from Bernard Hermann's all-strings score; it is impossible to imagine the film without it. Hitchcock's initial intent was to screen the shower scene silent – he had used silence successfully before. Hermann ignored Hitchcock's directive and composed the shower cue secretly. It may have been the first indication of the later meltdown between them but at this time helped renew what had been a faltering project. (Jack Sullivan, review “Hitchcock's Music” The Australian 26.3.10). While the synchronising of sound with image is a key element in maintaining the linear flow of classical narrative, the horror film had already begun deploying the disembodied use of sound as a disruptive  generic device. Hermann’s scoring was a leap forward in the deployment of sound in achieving the further shock destabilisation of the diegetic world. The Birds (1963) was similarly path-breaking in the fundamental redesigning of the narrative structure and the deployment of the new, visceral awhichudio-visual aesthetic; the score was the product of lengthy consultation by Hitch and Hermann with German electronic sound experts. 

The extent to which the shaping of the film becomes its subject is what separates Hitchcock from most other mainstream filmmakers; form as a creator of content not an embellishment.

George A Romero

George Romero (1940-2017) was an innovative writer- director, included here for the role he played in reshaping the horror genre, resourcefully engaging with the mood of the times working independently with minimal resources. In shattering the conventions of a genre and challenging the strictures of censorship further building in the late fifties, Hitchcock and Romero were ultimately accidental allies. As is now legendary, Night of the Living Dead (1968) was made in Pittsburgh with an amateur cast on little more than one-tenth of what was an economy budget in Hollywood for Psycho. If Romero's film was dismissed at the time by Variety as “amateurism of the first order” then as was subsequently noted 'the amateurs were poised to take over Hollywood'. The mauling to which Romero's film was subjected by much of the critical establishment in the US, at times bordering on outrage, only ensured its commercial success in independent distribution inspiring a flood of 'like-minded' films. 

Its subversiveness includes an element of grim humour only apparent in the opening scene in a graveyard, the presumed hero dead in the first few minutes at the hands of what proves to be a flesh eating zombie - radiation sickness, it transpires, is turning a growing proportion of the population into mindless killers. The viewer, like the small beleaguered group in the isolated farmhouse surrounded by an encroaching tide of zombies, is subjected to a series of reversals without let-up, to the final cruel irony. “Romero's genius lies in the way he builds up tension throughout the film – as the zombies grow in number, seemingly unstoppable – until the sense of terror becomes all-consuming, intensified by the speed with which the characters [except for one resourceful black man] collapse under the stress” (Phil Hardy, The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies).

"...one resourceful black man..."
Night of the Living Dead

Psycho and Peeping Tom constitute a decisive break between classic and modern horror and the beginning of the psycho-movie as a sub-genre involving a broadening of the range or replacement of the notion of the monster (see reference to ‘art horror’ in part 5). The three decades (1930-60) revolve around the twin poles of science and supernature. In the 50s boom (1956-60), most of the threats were external mainly generated by science, by radiation, by invasion from outer space or simply by accident, i.e. secular and external, and compared with classic horror, more naturalistic. A newly enriched Gothic cinema remerged from Hammer films, Corman's Poe cycle and Italian imitators moving back from the secular ‘everyday’ to classic horror.  The success of Psycho and Peeping Tom moved the secular stream strongly towards a  more naturalistic direction in the performances and in the greater attention to detail locating psychosis in family and psychosexual contexts (Tudor Ch. 3).

Karl Boehm, Peeping Tom

Psycho also opened the way to bigger budget art-horror films with major studio backing : three directed by Roman Polanski (Repulsion '65, Dance of the Vampires/The Vampire Killers '67, Rosemary's Baby '68) and for Hitchcock to make The Birds (64) at Universal – as noted, Paramount initially had refused to back Psycho. It, and especially Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), attracted a torrent of abuse in the English press on their release, “no doubt,” Phil Hardy concludes, “because they are among the most complex and intelligent films ever made about the cinema and bring us face-to-face with the unspeakable but indispensable desires without which cinema would not exist”(135). In its reflexivity Peeping Tom was a precursor to the concept of arthouse horror in modern cinema. 

Night of the Living Dead

Romero's success, further opened the way for path-breaking cult horror films in the seventies, most  notably by David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi, Wes Craven and his own The Crazies (73),  Martin (78), and Dawn of the Dead (79). “Appropriately, the cult popularity of Night of the Living Dead  peaked during the period of greatest repression of the Vietnam trauma.” Village Voice critic J.Hoberman  re-viewed it as “not only a horror classic, but a remarkable vision of the late 60s – it offers the most  literal possible image of America devouring itself.” (13/1/82)  


Ken Mogg, Great Directors: Alfred Hitchcock Senses of Cinema July 2005                                                                                                  

________“Psycho” The Alfred Hitchcock Story Titan Books 2008 pp. 156-9                                                                                                             

Paul Monaco, “Landmark Movies of the 1960s”  Ch 11 in The Sixties  University of California Press 2003 pp.188-92                                                                  

Andrew Tudor, “Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Film”  Basil Blackwell 1989                                                                                                                   

Robin Wood,”George A. Romero” International Dictionary vol II Directors  ed. Christopher Lyon pp.460-1                                                                    

Brian Wilson, Great Directors: George A. Romero Senses of Cinema February 20   


Previous entries in this series can be found at the following links

Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.