The Horror Show: Christopher Sharrett on neoconservatism in the 1980s and ’90s horror film

Christopher Sharrett’s assessment of neoconservative horror films focuses on some surprising examples

At the close of his barbed contrarian essay “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture,” academic and critic Christopher Sharrett quotes Pier Paolo Pasolini: “the progressive struggle for democratization of expression and for sexual liberation has been brutally superseded and cancelled out by the decision of consumerist power to grant a tolerance as vast as it is fake.” Sharrett, whose essay is included in Barry Keith Grant’s indispensable volume The Dread of Difference: Gender in the Horror Film, posits that the radical filmmakers of the 1970s who were responsible for imbuing the American horror film with a defiant liberal ethos had been replaced in the Reagan-Bush I era with directors responsible for reactionary genre cinema that helped retrench patriarchy and consumerism. That they did so while presenting viewers with a soft liberal veneer only makes them more reprehensible in Sharrett’s eyes.

To his credit, Sharrett does not punch down: he does not look to quickie B-movie fare like The Ghoulies, Puppet Master, or C.H.U.D. to make his case. (Who knows: he might in fact find these films more to his liking on a social-political level.) Instead, he focuses his analysis on four of the most popular, expensive, and lauded films of the era: Near Dark, Hellraiser (and, tangentially, its first two sequels), The Silence of the Lambs, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His argument is that each of these films represents a neoconservative ideology that insists on the destruction of the other and a preservation of the societal status quo – a status quo marked by the dominance of patriarchal authority and the suppression of genital sexual pleasure, most especially if it deviates from a straightforward, vanilla heterosexuality.

At times, he makes a good case, most especially in his discussion of Francis Ford Coppola’s dismal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Victorian Gothic novel. The film’s manifest ills range from its prologue, in which Dracula is shown as a Christian crusader against the Muslim hordes, picking up on an incipient anti-Muslim strain of American culture that would find its apotheosis in the post-9/11 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and on through its paradoxical prurience and revulsion toward female sexuality in the persons of Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) and Mina Murray (Winona Ryder). “Female sexuality from the film’s outset is unequivocally evil,” Sharrett writes, ”subordinated in the hierarchy of evil only to the incarnated Satan [Dracula] who turned his back on the duties of patriarchal law.”

Coppola’s cinematic excesses were to be expected by 1992, when the film was released; what was less expected was the extent to which the director of The Conversation and Apocalypse Now would cater to a hyperbolically retrograde and puritanical reading of Stoker’s text (its fidelity to Victorian mores notwithstanding). Indeed, it is here that Sharrett appears most exasperated: “There is little in the work of Murnau, of Tod Browning or James Whale, of Val Lewton or Terence Fisher, of any contract director working under the demands of the U.S. or British production codes of the last century, as hackneyed or reactionary as this film.”

Certainly not any of the other three films Sharrett examines at length, each of which has merits in spite of any neoconservative ideology they might or might not evince.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark is a visually stunning movie, arresting in its desaturated colours and heavy use of chiaroscuro. Without noting the visual techniques at work in the film, Sharrett reads the vampire clan as a nihilistic, postpunk caricature (he points out that one of the vampires wears a t-shirt emblazoned with William S. Burroughs’s face as a code for the way counterculture degrades social structures) and the hero, Caleb – played by Adrian Pasdar – as emblematic of the stalwart stability and uprightness of the traditional nuclear family. To the extent that Near Dark incorporates the tropes and tactics of the western – perhaps the most stalwart conservative film genre – it is possible to agree with Sharrett’s critique. And to be fair, Bigelow is no radical: she is the only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director, for a film that valourizes American military intervention in Iraq.

Where Sharrett’s analysis teeters is in his assumption that the film’s sympathies reside exclusively with its human heroes. Certainly the vampire clan, led by the horrendously vicious Jesse (Lance Henrickson), are positioned as the villains of the piece and summarily overcome, but it seems less clear that the “gratuitous slaughter carried out by the clan partakes of media notions of punk and other youth formations as merely symptomatic of social decay.” The violence perpetrated by the roaming clan is extreme, but so is their marginalization – forced to travel around the desert in a dilapidated van with the windscreen blacked out save for one small strip to see through. Instead of countercultural stand-ins, it is possible to read them as poverty-stricken outsiders, members of an underclass struggling to assert themselves (as opposed to “the threat of lumpenized masses of postindustrial civilization to Middle America”).

When Caleb asks Jesse his age, Jesse responds, “Let me put it this way: I fought for the South. We lost.” The repercussions of the Civil War persist to this day, and one may choose to see in the film a parable about the sins of the fathers (as Jesse becomes a surrogate father for Caleb) being visited upon the sons (Caleb must kill before he can be accepted into the clan). All of which is to suggest that Near Dark is at least a more layered and complex film than Sharrett gives it credit for being.

If Sharrett’s reading of Near Dark offers room for dissent, it is nothing compared to his takedowns of Hellraiser and The Silence of the Lambs. In the first instance, he argues that Clive Barker’s film is reactionary in part because it presents a metaphorical Pandora’s box which, when opened, releases hellish S&M creatures that ”associate erotic transgression with self-destruction.” While he acknowledges that Pinhead has become a horror icon in popular culture, Sharrett also argues that the character’s “grotesque, sadomasochistic aspect speaks to the media representation of postpunk nihilism that debunks the romance of transgression and resistance.”

What this ignores is the extent to which the cenobites – the S&M inflected, bondage gear kitted demons summoned up by the puzzle box – have been embraced by the queer community, and the degree to which the film, written and directed by an out gay man, has become a queer classic. In an essay for Off Screen, Colin Arason provides a strong rejoinder to Sharrett, writing in part, “To a large extent, the queers in Hellraiser belong to a pantheon of hyperbolically monstrous gay characters that appeared long before the outrageous stereotypes seen in John Waters, and extends well beyond the subculture sociopaths that populate the films of Gregg Araki.” Arason posits that the true villain in the film is the venal and unrepentant Frank, and that the cenobites display nobility and honour:

If one assumes that their typical victim is someone like Frank, who summons them at the beginning of the film, then it becomes apparent that their talents are actively sought out by hedonists who are looking for new experiences. When they encounter an innocent the cenobites, unlike the psychopaths found in many of the slasher films of the same period, reveal that they are rational beings that can be reasoned with. Their appearance may mark them as outsiders, but they pose no serious threat to normal people who wish to remain normal.

Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs has not been embraced by the queer community, which sees in the portrayal of the psychopath Buffalo Bill a dangerous stereotype of the threatening trans person. This is a reading that Sharrett endorses, but it runs up against one objection: the film itself goes out of its way to underline that Buffalo Bill is not transgender, though he attempts to adopt a woman’s identity out of extreme self-loathing. Sharrett’s argument that Buffalo Bill ”has no real origin in the society that produces him” is just wrong, as Lecter tells Clarice at one point that Bill “wasn’t born a criminal … He was made one through years of systematic abuse.”

The comment Sharrett singles out – Lecter’s assertion that Buffalo Bill’s “pathology is a thousand times more savage” than that of a transgender person – is not actually a condemnation of transgender people, as he would have it. Rather, it is an extension of Clarice’s observation that transgender people are not associated with violence. Buffalo Bill’s deviant psychology is concretely positioned outside the realm of gay or transgender people in the context of the film. Sharrett is wrong to suggest that non-heteronormative sexuality “is defined as monstrous”; Buffalo Bill is monstrous, but he is explicitly not any of the things he is described as being in the essay. (A version of Sharrett’s argument has been levied, with greater evidentiary merit, against Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill.)

As for the assertion that Clarice’s progress through the film validates patriarchal authority, the less said the better. The entire force and effect of The Silence of the Lambs involves the dramatization of a woman entering a male-dominated world and beating them at their own game. (Note how many times Demme shoots the diminutive Jodie Foster surrounded in close quarters by men towering over her.) It is Clarice who confronts Lecter and gets him to trust her and divulge his secrets; it is Clarice who figures out why Buffalo Bill is committing his crimes; and, on a mythological level, it is Clarice who literally descends into the underworld to do battle with the monster. That she is rewarded by the establishment at the close of the film is not so much a capitulation to the patriarchy as a triumph over it.

Sharrett begins his essay by confessing a debt to the theories Robin Wood expounded in his “Return of the Repressed.” Arason makes some good points about the limitations of Wood’s conception of “progressive” and “reactionary” horror; regardless, Sharrett’s choices of films to illustrate his contentions seem (with the exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) at the very least odd. (Wood himself was an admirer of The Silence of the Lambs, though he critiqued the decision to excise a scene in which Lecter goes further in explicating Buffalo Bill’s psychology that “would have partly answered the widespread complaint that [Bill] is presented as gay, reinforcing a malicious popular stereotype.”) Near Dark, Hellraiser, and The Silence of the Lambs all differ from their 1970s predecessors in numerous ways, though they are not as ideologically opposed as Sharrett would have one believe.

The Horror Show: Christopher Sharrett on neoconservatism in the 1980s and ’90s horror film