Enterprise & Society 4.4 (2004) 733-735
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Kevin Heffernan suggests that the 1950s and 1960s were a critical moment in the history of the horror film. In the preceding decades, specialized units at Universal and RKO spawned the dysfunctional family of the Mummy, Frankenstein, and Dracula, along with packs of werewolves and cat people. Meant for a universal audience not yet divided by the modern rating system, these characters would seem tame or exotic to the modern fan who specializes in the delights provided by the slasher, gore, and adult-themed horror film—each directed at a specific audience and age group. According to Heffernan, the postwar changes in horror films explain this generational caesura.
In sketching the history of the postwar horror film, Heffernan underlines the role played by the Paramount decision and the rapid diffusion of TV technology. The 1948 conclusion of the anti-monopoly suit against Hollywood studios disallowed the system of "block booking," a practice long employed by the studios to compel [End Page 733] independent theater owners to book the cheap product together with the costly star vehicle. The decision to establish a freer market empowered exhibitors but had unexpected consequences. Caught in a recession and no longer confident in their ability to place all their products, studios turned out fewer, costlier, movies that, they hoped, would receive high bids from exhibitors. In horror hits of the caliber of House of Wax (1953), expensive 3D and stereo sound technologies played the role of the highly paid star. Costly and cumbersome, however, few of these technological innovations lasted. Cunning advertising was cheaper and as effective. Producer William Castle saved on production costs and invested in dubiously qualified nurses and doctors whom he placed in theater lobbies, ready to rescue spectators led into cardiac arrest by his movies.
The shortage of pictures, however, persisted. In 1940 Hollywood produced 479 films, in 1966 only 168. While first-run theaters were not particularly affected by this dearth of material, the third-run neighborhood ("nabe") establishments were in trouble because their audiences were accustomed to the double bill and to three or four new movies a week. As television and long commutes turned suburban living rooms into entertainment centers, nabe theaters' audiences were increasingly composed of thrill-seeking adolescents for whom the horror film and the afternoon double bill fulfilled both cultural and biological needs. The shortage of films was made fiercer by television and especially the demand for color broadcasts. Television stations soon developed a voracious appetite for cheap, color movies, particularly after the expansion of UHF channels in the mid-1960s. In search of cheap horror movies to exhibit, American theater owners like Robert Lippert, began to produce their own (Lippert founded Screen Guild Pictures) or scouted overseas productions (Lippert struck a distribution deal with British Hammer Films). In the 1950s, American neighborhood theaters offered their audiences the adventuresome "xperiments" of Professor Quatermass as well as the high-brow perversion of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960). Later, Americans were treated to the baroque cinematic misogyny of Italian masters like Mario Bava and Dario Argento who, thanks to lower production costs and sheer visual ingenuity, were able to provide buckets of blood for fewer bucks.
Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold is rich in insights and will make film history more complex and nuanced. Horror film producers pioneered marketing techniques such as saturation booking usually associated with the opening of Jaws (1975). Decades before Star Wars (1977) horror films pursued a special effects-driven cinema favoring spectacle and attraction over character and narration. If anything, Heffernan is too ambitious. His goal is "to analyze the economic, aesthetic, [End Page 734] technological, and cultural factors that changed the horror film" (p.13) in 228 pages of text. Carol Clover, Robin Wood, and Harry Benshoff, to name only a few, have worked on the aesthetic...