Academic journal article Post Script

Reconfiguring Gothic Mythology: The Film Noir-Horror Hybrid Films of the 1980s

Academic journal article Post Script

Reconfiguring Gothic Mythology: The Film Noir-Horror Hybrid Films of the 1980s

Article excerpt

I

Joan Copjec suggests that film noir is a modality of particular contemporary significance in that it reflects a culturally noteworthy "felt mutation in the structures of power" (1996: xi). She elsewhere suggests an important contribution made by detective and gothic fiction to what Claude Lefort terms a "mutation of the symbolic order" (1991: 4Th). The latter is merely a remark in a footnote and is not elaborated upon; I quote both observations only because they draw together American dark crime and gothic literature and suggest, as I will do in the present essay, a considerable importance in that convergence. The importance of film per se in the development of modern and contemporary horror has been remarked upon by Linda Badley, who sees the film media's horror significance as on a par with that of the 19th century High Gothic literature that strongly influenced classic horror films. Badley notes the power of the traditional movie setting: "Horror returns to pre-literate, somatic modes of knowing....Sitting in the darkened theater, which replicates the den or campfire, we re-encounter our earliest dreams" (8). She correctly observes that in fact the literary work of Stephen King, Ann Rice, Clive Barker, and Thomas Ligotti, among others, derives in large part from visual media--especially, in terms of film, from the now themselves classic movies of the 1930s and 1950s.

The following discussion takes off from and concludes with consideration of the arguable importance of a set of realist and quasi-realist films that appeared in the 1980s bringing the film noir crime tradition together with the film horror one in a way that had not been done so fully and effectively before. A series of films during that decade, notably The First Deadly Sin (1980), Blowout (1981), Tightrope (1984), Angel Heart (1987), and Fatal Attraction (1987), conflated crime and particularly noir conventions with gothic ones to produce a crossbreed form; Alan Parker's Angel Heart, arguably the defining version of the hybrid to date, did so with shocking power. This gothicized noir mode closes the traditional investigator's distance from the material being investigated, and collapses the cerebral, detached investigative model. The detective in this subgenre becomes eminently vulnerable, descending into the dark night of the soul usually associated with horror invention--witness Clarice Starling (Julianne Mo ore) in Hannibal (2001), Scully and Mulder (Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny) in The X-Files (1998), and so on. In Wolfen (1981), the tough and streetwise detective played by Albert Finney disintegrates in the face of a preternatural challenge. In Tightrope, the Clint Eastwood character, likewise tough and experienced, becomes lost in the pornographic labyrinth an investigation takes him into. John Travolta in Brian DePalma's Blowout is emotionally mangled despite his efforts to technicalize his investigation and distance himself through his electronic expertise. In these films, contrary to the cerebral detective story tradition in which, as Badley describes it, "the rational subject separates itself from the body of evidence," there is no such remove; as in horror, the protagonist "descends into primal fear and desire. It is a loss of ego in cellular chaos" (10).

The significance of these hybrid works in the twentieth century development of the horror modality, I would argue, has yet to be critically clarified or creatively exploited, though The X-Files, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Seven (1995), and Stigmata (1999), to mention a few examples, suggest their influence. (1) Not that the 1980s films lacked for their own precursors; detective literature and horror had been edging toward each other for a long time. Two or three of Hitchcock's works, as well as Eastwood's Play Misty for Me (1971), Alan Pakula's Klute (1971), and Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), might be seen as anticipating the five I have identified--certainly Play Misty anticipated Fatal Attraction. …

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