One of the privileges I have had in operating this website is to meet and dialogue witha lot of creative and reflective people. One of these people is John Muir, a writer and journalist who is the author of twenty-two reference books covering science fiction and horror on film and television through McFarland Publishing (www.mcfarlandpub.com), including award winners Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland, 2002), and The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (McFarland, 2005). He is creator of the Internet sci fi series The House Between and he maintains a popular blog as well.
Two of John’s written works are Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland, 2007), and Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre (McFarland, 2002). John made some time in his writing schedule to discuss these books.
TheoFantastique: John, thank you for the opportunity to look at two of your books. It is a privilege to be part of LOTT D with fine thinkers and writers like you. Let’s begin on a personal note. How did you come to be involved as a writer on horror and sci fi? What is your personal interest in these genres?
John Muir:Thank you, John. I enjoy reading your amazing website very much, and was honored to be contacted by you.
As is the case with many authors, my writing career began because of a consuming passion for the genre and my desire to expression that passion.
In particular, I was fascinated by the technical artistry, visual sophistication and thematic subtext of a British science fiction/horror series entitled Space:1999 (1975-1977). To my dismay, the series was rather poorly remembered and grievously misunderstood by the genre press. The received wisdom about Space:1999 originated largely from bias; from Star Trek fans, Star Trek-oriented magazines and even former Star Trek writers (who all disliked 1999 because, essentially, it represented competition to their preferred franchise).
When I saw that no scholarly treatise about Space:1999 had been composed; I set out to write it myself so I could (loudly) challenge the received wisdom on the much-derided program and advocate for the series’ underreported strengths and values.
I was able to undertake this task because – while at the University of Richmond from – I studied under Hudson Review critic Bert Cardullo (a student of The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann), and he graciously and patiently trained me in the fine and rigorous arts of film criticism and film interpretation. After I studied theater with Dr. Cardullo, he became my full-time faculty advisor, arranging independent studies for me in film history, French cinema, and other film-centric topics.
My niche involved this idea that I would apply the study of film grammar and visual interpretation to science fiction/horror cinema, and also science fiction/horror television. Simultaneously, I would challenge the received wisdom on the likes of Space:1999, Dr. Who, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and other productions/artists. I could achieve this by interpreting the images…but also by writing about the historical context underlying various productions. Context is the key that unlocks understanding of any film.
The Space:1999 book was published by McFarland in April of 1997 and it immediately became a big hit. Another contract followed. And then another. I haven’t looked back since. After Space:1999, I turned my attention to other genre programs of interest (including John Newland’s One Step Beyond and Battlestar Galactica), other directors that I admired (from Tobe Hooper, Kevin Smith and Christopher Guest to Sam Raimi and Mira Nair) and even, eventually to other genres (like rock’n'roll movies; film comedies, musicals, and superhero films.)
My first love, however, has always remained horror. This is so because - not entirely unlike Space:1999 - the horror genre is often misunderstood or derided by a society that doesn’t want to gaze closely; that sees only blood and guts…not social value. Personally and professionally, I find horror to be the most visually arresting of genres; the most moral of film genres; and often the most trailblazing of genres. A good horror film can not only remind us where we’ve been as a culture…but point to the direction we’re headed.
This is true, I believe, because horror film creators frequently emerge from outside the mainstream film industry. George Romero, Sam Raimi and Tobe Hooper are prime examples of this 1970s-1980s trend. They constructed their personal cinema ”outside” of accepted Hollywood values (and decorum) and tapped right into the cultural Zeitgeist.
TheoFantastique: In Horror Films of the 1980s you reproduce a quote from a previous book of yours that looked at 1970s horror. This quote references expressions of art that take place within a social and historical context. You argue that understanding this is essential if we are to properly grasp the art that is produced within such contexts. What was the social context of 1980s America that influenced the horror films you discuss in your book, and how did you distill this to the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy./Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.” summary catchphrase?
John Muir: In essence, you can best understand the 1980s in terms of the overwhelming influence of Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States.
Let me summarize: Reagan led the country from 1980-1988 (while his running mate, George Bush, ran the country for the remainder of the decade). A former Hollywood actor, Reagan was a self-professed arch-conservative, but his policies as President represented the exact opposite of conservative values. Reagan was elected on the basis of shrinking government…yet he grew government dramatically under his watch (by some 61,000 Federal employees). Reagan was elected on the platform of cutting taxes…yet he raised taxes more than any President in U.S. history up to that point (The Tax Reform Act of 1986). He claimed to be in favor of fiscal responsibility, and yet under Reagan’s watch, the national debt ballooned enormously (to some 2.7 trillion dollars…200 billion dollars-a-year in interest to tax payers). Reagan ran as a family values President, yet he was our nation’s first (and only) divorced President. Reagan courted the religious right and yet was not even a regular church-goer (like his ‘liberal’ predecessor Jimmy Carter; or later, Bill Clinton, was). Reagan claimed to be a strong and resolute warrior, and yet when when terrorists bombed and killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon, Reagan’s response was to…invade Grenada, a small island where American medical students were threatened by communists.
In other words, there was a distinct and enormous gap between the public image of Reagan and the reality of Reagan’s policies. Horror movies during the decade pointed out this contradiction again and again, in films as diverse as A Nightmare on Elm Street (about the sins of the father passed on to the children), Poltergeist (about yuppie shortcuts — just move the headstones!) and They Live (about the gap between the rich and the poor in contemporary America).
On one hand, Reagan told Americans that we could have it all (low taxes, huge defense spending, and Wall Street untethered by de-regulation) and on the other hand, he ran up a colossal tab to pay for his tax cuts for the rich; his voodoo economics, and his fantasy Star Wars Initiative (which didn’t work).
So the Republicans under Reagan were saying “don’t worry, be happy” (Bush’s campaign song, actually), and horror films were telling the truth: “be afraid, be very afraid.” The party wasn’t going to last forever…and October 19, 1987 (the day the Dow dropped 508 points and 500 billion dollars in assets were annihilated) certainly proved that. Alas, we’ve unlearned the lesson today and seen a repeat of history.
You can also see in the 1980s horror genre an overwhelming ”apocalypse” mentality: the fear that the bellicose, perhaps even senile Reagan was going to initiate a nuclear war with the Soviet Union on a whim. Reagan espoused “winnable” nuclear war, joked on one occasion that ”bombing” would start in five minutes, claimed that submarines could “recall” their nukes once launched, and on and on. Both Reagan and his Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, stated in public venues that ours might be the last generation before Judgment Day.
Given this apocalpypse mentality, the horror genre came up with a variety of films concerning the end of the world, from The Final Conflict (1981) and Dreamscape (1984) to The Terminator (1984), Night of the Comet (1984) and even Return of the Living Dead (1985).
In my opinion, you can’t understand or appreciate fully the horror films of the 1980s, unless you study how they were responding to the culture at large; the culture of Reagan.
TheoFantastique: So in your view, it was these social dynamics that contributed to the high number and type of horror films we saw in the 1980s?
John Muir: Historical context is vitally important, yes, but it isn’t just the social and cultural context that we must examine. We also must recall what was happening in terms of the movie business, and in particular, the economics of the movie business. Halloween (1978) and then Friday the 13th (1980) proved that you could make a successful horror movie without a box office star (like, say, Vincent Price), and without much by way of special effects. Halloween (1978) generated a whopping 55 million dollars on a budget of less than $500,000. Friday the 13th – on a budget of something like 1.5 million dollars - went on to accrue 70 milliion dollars, outgrossing mainstream films such as Xanadu, Brubaker, and The Final Countdown. Even a modest success like Prom Night (1980), made 14 million dollars against a budget of two million dollars. You can’t argue with numbers like that.
On one hand, this meant that many young and talented filmmakers could now make their movies cheaply and be virtually assured of — if not success – then at least wide exposure. On the downside, many filmmakers with no talent also took up camera and assumed they could make a good cheap horror movie because real talents such as Carpenter and Raimi had done so. This is why slashers are so notably variable in quality.
Because slasher movies were quick and cheap to produce, there was a veritable explosion of them in the 1980s. The industry termed these films ”quick playoffs,” meaning that everything came down to a successful first weekend (often based on promotion and a holiday-oriented exploitation title).
Also, the home video market exploded in the 1980s. This meant that suddenly audiences were seeking horror films they hadn’t seen before; or horror films they remembered from theatrical runs. The VHS/VCR age opened up a previously untapped secondary market in a big way…and that market had to be fed…constantly. Often with low-budget, direct-to-video horror sequels or ”brand name” horror movies.
The new horror aesthetic (slashers) and the new market (home video) rcombined to create a horror movie explosion in the 1980s.
TheoFantastique: With the exception of Halloween, I have not been a fan of teenage slasher films. But in this book you devote a chapter to “A History of the Dead Teenager Decade” which was very helpful. In this chapter you reference the dissatisfaction of film critics like Roger Ebert with such films who look back for a more innocent cinematic age in the portrayal of the teen. How did horror films in the 1980s help teens and others grapple with the spectre of global annihilation and disease, like AIDS?
John Muir: Another critic I admire tremendously, Janet Maslin, also derided the slasher movie formula and said that slashers made the world (and specifically audiences…) mean. I strongly disagree. I think the world was already mean and ugly (thanks to Three Mile Island, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of Mart Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, the Manson Murders, the Vietnam War, Watergate, etc.). Slasher movies arrived at a time when teens were rightly wondering how many tomorrows they could count on, especially with Reagan’s finger poised on the red button.
So I’m not surprised or in any way judgemental that the entertainment of choice for a generation (the slasher film) concerned what I term in the book a “crucible of survival” in which only the clever, the moral, the resolute and the resourceful manage to survive an apocalyptic world that seems stacked against them. Slasher movies don’t take make audiences meaner (as Maslin suggested); they simply take the real world as it exists and demonstrate to teens that they can survive it; especially with the right skill set. Slasher films are a test; a gauntlet. Much like life itself.
Honestly, I believe that – when well-done – slasher films are cathartic and harmless. At least here, death boasts consequence and meaning. By contrast, look at something like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), which says, basically, it’s okay to put an arrow in the head of someone else if he’s a communist; for “nationalist” reasons. I believe that message is far more harmful than anything contained in any Halloween or Friday the 13th film.
And let’s remember too: it wasn’t just horror films grappling with this kind of apocalypse mentality in the 1980s; it was punk music and punk fashion too. The aesthetic of the peace generation was replaced in the 1980s by the punk ethos.
TheoFantastique: You list your top fifteen horror films for this decade in one of the appendices for the book. If you could only choose the top three, would it be the top three you list in the book, or what would they be and why? What is the absolute cream of the crop for you from this decade?
John Muir: In the book, I chose The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986) and Altered States (1980) as the top three films. Those are three terrific representatives of 1980s horror cinema, dealing with personal alienation and the fragility of the flesh, the AIDS crisis, and — to some extent – the manner in which (yuppie?) self-obsession leads to oblivion.
Ranking is always a difficult and tricky proposition, but as I lscan down my list I also see A Nightmare on Elm Street (at # 5), Poltergeist (at # 7), Return of the Living Dead (at #9), Child’s Play at (#11), and other great 1980s horror films. I guess depending on my mood or personal sentiment, I might change the order a little bit, but I would also maintain that you can’t go wrong with The Thing, The Fly or Altered States. Each of those films (from Carpenter, Cronenberg and Russell, respectively), have something very important to tell us about the 1980s. On a personal note, I maintain that John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the greatest horror films ever made, regardless of decade.
TheoFantastique: This decade also saw the rise of a great number of film directors who produced notable horror, one of whom was Tobe Hooper who you discuss in Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre (McFarland, 2002). What was it about his work that caused you to devote an entire book to his art?
John Muir: Tobe Hooper created one of the very best horror movies ever made, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and then he went to Hollywood and was denied final cut on virtually ever horror film he made thereafter. To me, that’s a story worth telling. I admire The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on so many levels (even as a comment on eating meat…), that I was just dying to learn more about the artist behind it.
Here’s how I see it: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is inarguably brilliant in the fashion it shatters movie decorum, and the manner in which it viscerally stomps all over screen taboos. Yet even in Hooper’s weakest films, you can catch a glimpse of that “No Deal Kid” (as L.M. Kit Carson called him). Imagine – just imagine — if Hooper had been granted final cut on all his films (or heck, just a few more). If he hadn’t been routinely second guessed by an industry interested only in blunting his edge….the very thing that defines him as an artist.
By any objective critical standard, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, Lifeforce, TCM 2 and The Funhouse are fascinating horror movies. I felt that Hooper and those films deserved some serious attention. The received wisdom here is that Hooper is a failed director who only made one good film (the original Chain Saw). My hope is that people would read my book, and challenge that wisdom right alongside me.
TheoFantastique: What were some of the formative cultural influences on Hooper that forged him as a filmmaker and producer of horror?
John Muir: Hooper is a baby boomer, a ”movie brat” kid of the same generation that produced Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, George Lucas and John Landis, among others. This means, essentially, that he grew up – as he has stated — “breastfed” by movies. His early passions included magic, making super-8mm films, and reading comics, particularly the EC (Educational Comics) of William Gaines: The Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, Shock SuspensStories, etc. Many of those comics are highly moral in their virtues (cosmic scales of justice are universally righted by story’s end); yet they also feature, as Hooper saw them…leaps in logic. Not to mention palpable terror. This was a style he adopted in his films.
Professionally, Hooper also directed documentaries (such as the PBS effort The Peter, Paul and Mary Special) and so he came to understand the value and efficacy of cinema verite: the spontaneous style of filmmaking in which life unfolds around you and does not seem or appear rigged or staged. That style is part-and-parcel of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s power.
In terms of his films, I’d also note that Hooper was more authentically part of the counter-culture movement than many of his brethren (like Lucas or Spielberg). His first feature, Eggshells (1969), for instance, concerned hippies in a commune and a trippy premise about a “crypto-embryonic-hyper=electric” entity living in the basement. Hooper isn’t afraid to stay into non-linear, non-conventional territory.
TheoFantastique: You describe Hooper’s work as a form of surrealism. How do you see this expressed in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Invaders from Mars, and Poltergeist?
John Muir: Well, I note in the book that in Hooper’s finest film efforts rationality, realism, situational logic and other traditional cornerstones of mainstream film storytelling fall deliberately by the wayside. I think he champions the surreal in film specifically in the sense of his excesses or his unpredictability. A primary example is the final act of Poltergeist. The film’s “logical” plot culminates when Zelda Rubinstein cleanses the haunted house and little Carol Anne is rescued. But the film continues….and evil spirits reveal sexual stirrings for Mrs. Freelings (for the first time in the film), the children are threatened by an organic maw ostensibly leading to hell (when previously the spirits were depicted as ethereal, delicate wisps of glowing energy), and then rotting corpses burst out of the ground willy-nilly. This is a Hooper coda: a climax beyond a climax, beyond a climax, beyond the bounds of logical, narrative or realistic premises.
The surreal is a form of art in which “the fantasies of the subconscious are presented in images without formal order.” I see that in Invaders from Mars, itself a child’s dream of assuming manhood; in Chainsaw, which plays like an unending, irrational nightmare; in Lifeforce, which is a wild sexual fantasy; and in Poltergeist, as I comment about above. In all of these situations and films, the formal and established order (the traditional decorum of conventional movie narrative) is deliberately (even cheerfully) shattered in favor of a new order; one of accelerating, escalating, ultimately irrational terror, and often, uneasy laughs. This is Hooper’s gift as a filmmaker.
TheoFantastique: You acknowledge the ups and downs of Hooper’s career, and in light of this, and in consideration of his film and television work, how might we appreciate Hooper as a filmmaker from a broader context? And what might be his continuing legacy?
John Muir: Tobe Hooper is the film’s genre’s Lewis Carroll, I often state. Deploying the tenets of surrealism, Hooper has lead audiences into the subconscious mind and the heart of darkness. Hooper, despite his foibles (and bad films like The Mangler), remains palpably in touch with his own subconscious; with his own id. He can tap into dark, frightening imagery, and — as Wes Craven put it — he make us feel at risk even as we sit in the safety of a theater. His unpredictability, his willingness to go full-throttle and indulge in the surreal, marks him as a highly individual and singular artist. I do worry about his legacy, because of the received wisdom I raised above. My hope is that Hooper would be remembered shoulder to shoulder with John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George Romero and David Cronenberg. For me, he’s one of twentieth-century horror’s “big five.”
TheoFantastique: John, thanks again for discussing your books and your passion for horror.
John Muie: Thank you, John. All my best!