Robin Wood on the Horror Film: Collected Essays and Reviews (Preview)
Edited by Barry Keith Grant with a preface by Richard Lippe. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018. 456 pp., illus. Hardcover: $82.00 and Paperback: $34.99.
Reviewed by David Greven
I regard Robin Wood (1931–2009) as the finest film critic in the English language as well as a trailblazer on so many levels—serious Hitchcock criticism, auteur studies (even if he chafed against aspects of the auteur theory), close readings of cinematic texts, gay male–centered, feminist-oriented criticism, and, perhaps most importantly, serious criticism of the horror film genre. For these and other reasons, this latest collection is both extremely welcome and revelatory. Those who can pretty much quote Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond (HVR) verbatim will discover fresh analyses here as well as pieces that complement and interestingly contrast with those in the more polished, honed, and wide-ranging HVR.
The essays here range from lengthy pieces—some director-centered, like the one on David Cronenberg in which Wood painstakingly outlines the reasons for his animosity to the Canadian director’s work—to short film reviews. All in all, the collection provides a necessary index not just to the shifts in Wood’s developing and remarkably sustained theories of the horror film but also to the genre’s own permutations and, in Wood’s view, descent into banality after the 1980s.
The publisher’s summary of the book’s scope is nicely succinct, so I will quote it here:
In September 1979, Wood and Richard Lippe programmed an extensive series of horror films for the Toronto International Film Festival and edited a companion piece: The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film—the first serious collection of critical writing on the horror genre. Robin Wood on the Horror Film now contains all of Wood’s writings from The American Nightmare and nearly everything else he wrote over the years on horror—published in a range of journals and magazines—gathered together for the first time. It begins with the first essay Wood ever published, ‘Psychoanalysis of Psycho,’ which appeared in 1960 and already anticipated many of the ideas explored later in his touchstone book, Hitchcock’s Films. The volume ends, fittingly, with, ‘What Lies Beneath?,’ written almost five decades later, an essay in which Wood reflects on the state of the horror film and criticism since the genre’s renaissance in the 1970s.
When Wood first published Hitchcock’s Films (1965), he was responding to a tepid and in its own way even aggressive atmosphere of indifference to the Hollywood cinema in English-language criticism. Using Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) as an example, we can call this the “it’s enough to make you kick the next bird you see on the street” school of criticism, laden with superficial jokes and a hostility to seriousness. Wood would have none of that. His readings of Hitchcock, and other directors such as Hawks, Penn, Satyajit Ray, and Bergman, were deeply serious, treating film like the art it is. In style and sensibility, Wood always emulated his teacher at Cambridge University, F. R. Leavis. Though much of this new collection covers Wood’s post-1970s work, one standout early essay will be a revelation to the uninitiated—“In Memoriam: Michael Reeves.” In his most eloquent and finely honed early style, Wood offers close readings of the limited but striking oeuvre of a horror director most famous for the Vincent Price movie The Conqueror Worm (1968).
Wood’s essay “Psychoanalysis of Psycho” both paves the way for his pioneering work on Hitchcock and anticipates his horror criticism: “Psycho [is] Hitchcock’s first ‘horror movie.’” Having made Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock’s “art led him to a point where it became inevitable that he would envisage the possibility of final and irremediable horror.” Psycho (1960) is the template not only for a major strain in the horror film but also Wood’s thinking on the genre. Throughout, the horror films he focuses on concern the normative family gradually and indelibly exposed as corrupt, fissured, falling apart, fatally at odds with itself. The lonely and desperate attempt of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to break free of her constrictions provides the model for the woman’s attempt at liberation and negotiation of increasingly hazardous situations in the horror film.
Of course, Wood himself noted repeatedly that at the time he wrote his first book on Hitchcock, he had no feminist wokeness at all, to put it in contemporary terms. That wokeness came with the 1970s, when, after his divorce from his wife, he came out and explicitly engaged with gay, feminist, and, later, Marxist approaches to film in pursuit of an oppositional and politically progressive cinema. Freudian theory, a crucial theoretical foundation for Wood’s criticism, provided him with the basis for his most famous, and debated, contribution to horror film theory—“the return of the repressed.” All that society represses returns in frightening, monstrous form, a process the horror film perpetually enacts. Another way of putting it is Wood’s succinct formula, “Normality is threatened by the monster.”
In England and in Canada (moving there permanently in 1977 to teach at York University) and by extension the United States, Wood fought a long war against a critical Establishment that refused to take lowbrow genres like horror seriously. “The horror film is the most disreputable of the genres,” Wood notes in a 1972 essay that also laments, “do critics really expect neorealist verisimilitude in a horror fantasy?” “The American Nightmare” horror film series at the 1979 Toronto International Film Festival that Wood organized with his partner Richard Lippe, included interviews with directors that Wood championed such as Larry Cohen, Brian De Palma, and Stephanie Rothman, as well as those he denigrated such as David Cronenberg. The legendary collection of essays—that also included essays by Lippe and two of Wood’s former students who became standout critics themselves, Andrew Britton and Tony Williams (a leader in the study of horror movies and auteurs)—represented an effort to take the horror film seriously while pursuing the ethics of oppositional cinema…
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