Reynold Humphries. The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931-1941: Madness in a Social Landscape. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Reynold Humphries believes it is his task as film critic “to pinpoint, explain, and analyze” contradictions in “ideology as the way subjects live out in the Imaginary their real social relations and conditions and some more human alternative, long repressed but capable of finding textual form” (262). He carried out this task in a well-argued, well-researched study that is, above all, convincing.
The excellent book (282 pages) consists of the nine-page Introduction, four main chapters, the four-page Conclusion, the four-page Filmography, the five-page Bibliography, and the seven-page Index of names, titles, and subjects. The 431 endnotes to the chapters give valuable additional information and ideas.
The title is a very revealing rubric for the content as a whole, and it is an indication of Humphries’ concise, informative use of language throughout. His most general thesis is that the horror films of that period represent the real social relations along with imaginary variations of them that propose a more human world. As the preserver of the status quo Hollywood usually acts as a kind of co-director of the films, which in general present different kinds of horror or anxiety experienced by people in their social life.
What at first is impressive to a reader is the book’s methodology. Not only are the films analyzed on the basis of Freudian, Lacanian, and other psychoanalytic ideas, but they are also analyzed on the basis of detailed discussions of differing perspectives: that of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA); that of the film studios, especially Universal Studios; that of reviewers in the media; and that of fellow academic critics. In this way the object of study is given clarity by the various perspectives in which it is interpreted; on the other hand, then the book is not just a film study but an implicit analysis of American culture. He should be complimented on his discussions of the interactions of the films and their culture.
In Chapter 1 Humphries begins the major theme of the blurring of boundaries between masculine and feminine in horror films. The sexual subtext helps him to explain the effect of horror or anxiety. He shows the contradictory ideas that coexist in the films through double entendres in language and disavowal of feelings by the majority of people. As the title of Chapter 1 reveals, the films themselves acquired the quality of superstition that their contents evoked; they became a new social content interacting with others.
Continuing the main theme of chapter 1, Chapter 2 discusses the representation of sexuality in conflicting ways such that the films deconstruct the patriarchal order they also maintain. Horror or anxiety results from the disavowal of repressed alternative sexual tendencies, or from the blurring of gender boundaries, conventional and unconventional.
Since normality is an issue in this and subsequent chapters (62), Humphries’ book contributes to the intelligent texts in favour of gay rights. For example, the film censor Joseph Breen who is criticized throughout, and critics in the media both attacked aspects of films that made men look effeminate or look like “pansies” (68). So, while original and working versions of films may have blurred gender boundaries, there was a counter-reaction by censors, the media, and other cinema-related cultural forces that did contribute to the final versions. Humphries’ intelligent analysis, as well as references to other film scholars, makes a controversial topic convincing. The examples of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, which are often discussed as gay texts are discussed in such subtle detail that Humphries seems able to lead his readers to a primal source of the films’ great attraction and equally great shocking effect.
In Chapter 3 Humphries discusses Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization at length to serve as a hybrid theoretical basis for interpretation. In so far as the unconscious can allow mutually opposed ideas to coexist, Humphries argues, this coexistence can be projected into the ideology of social classes as conflict (164), hence the title of Chapter Three “The Road to (Dis)enchantment.”
Showing Humphries’ broad theoretical basis, Chapter Four uses Fredric Jameson’s idea of an “absent cause” to show in an original way how history forms and is formed by horror films, as the chapter title “History Is Made at Night” [i.e. in films] suggests. The historical ideas of Humphries are Marxian to the extent that various types of class struggle are observed at work in the horror films, and the social struggles are extended to the struggle of technology with nature itself (221). The idea of Utopia, which Humphries believes is important in this chapter, allows the author to discuss the way films present social problems and implicit solutions.
In the Conclusion Humphries appropriately writes about the whole 1931-1941 period of horror films and places them in their world cultural context of Fascism in the wake of World War I. All in all, this excellent study is convincing; it is detailed, well-researched, and above all presents the films from different perspectives that are eventually incorporated into that of Humphries and the readers.
Professor William Schultz
The University of Athens Athens, Greece