Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, 1953-1968, by Kevin Heffernan (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), ISBN: 0822332159, 323pp., $22.95.
The horror film of the 1950s and 1960s seems a dark reflection of its progenitor, the Gothic novel of the late eighteenth century. In its popularity and its marginalised status on the scale of generic hierarchies, in its transgressions of realist conventions, of good taste, and of cultural authority, in its controversial cultivation of terror and horror through strategies of excess, the horror film, like the originary Gothic novel, holds a kind of mirror to cultural identity. Kevin Heffernan's excellent and synthetic book examines the horror film of the 1950s and 1960s in terms of its aesthetic identity, its cultural role, and the technological innovations and economic forces that shaped it and its dissemination. In the process, he presents a clear narrative of those innovations and forces as well as acute analysis of individual films.
Heffernan argues that, beginning in 1953 with the 3-D horror film and ending in 1968 when the MPAA rating system was instituted and the 'adult' horror film emerged, there was 'a major cultural and economic shift in the production and reception of the horror film' (7). This fascinating account locates the metamorphosis of the horror film in the changing economic and cultural landscape of post-World War II America. The war years, Heffernan contends, because of the limitations enforced by rationing on the use of disposable income, saw sharp increases in movie-going. The late 1940s and 1950s, however, brought changes, many of which resulted in a severe decline in the size of the movie-going audience. As the country retooled itself for peacetime, disposable income was increasingly invested in consumer durable goods. Television ownership expanded geometrically. People moved to the suburbs, away from the city's downtown movie palaces. Perhaps most important, in 1948 the anti-trust case United States v. Paramount, et al. was decided, changing the nature of the control the 'Big Five' Hollywood studios exerted over the production, distribution, and exhibition of films. As the major studios cut back on production - particularly on the production of movies to fill the 'B' slot of the double bill - a product shortage was created, resulting in a competitive scramble. The years that followed were marked by the rise of the teen audience, competition over new technologies (such as 3-D and Cinemascope), the move into color, the 'up-scaling' of the genre film, advertising gimmickry, and the increasing involvement of independent producers as well as co-production with non-US film industries (especially England and Italy).
Heffernan tells that complex story with a rare combination of narrative and analytic clarity, drawing on works of film history, government documents, industry discussions and advertisements in the trade papers Variety and Motion Picture Herald, popular magazines, and archived studio records. In order to follow theatrical distribution and television broadcast in a local market, he examines the dissemination of horror films in Philadelphia during the period. …