- A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema by Kendall R Phillips
In A Place of Darkness, Kendall R. Phillips examines the relationship between early American cinema and the horror genre. While this is not a new topic of study, what makes Phillips's book unique is his use of rhetorical analysis to assess the way contemporary discourse described the features that later become horror conventions. Phillips imagines this endeavor as a bridge for the two currently divided strands of critical thought on the genre's origins, which breaks down into those who cite the release of Tod Browning's Dracula in 1931 as an inception point due to the film's self-characterization as horror, and those who ignore discursive perspectives by focusing instead on the constitutive elements of early cinema.
Limiting his scope to entries produced between 1896 and 1931, Phillips is careful not to anachronistically attribute genre to this set of films, but rather to construct a nuanced understanding of how both professional critics and lay people responded to them in relationship to their cultural and historical context. Phillips considers how national fears, anxieties, and traumas were reflected in the rhetoric of the films themselves and the discourse surrounding them. This approach becomes more strongly apparent with each chapter. He moves chronologically from discussing the epistemological shift towards skepticism to considerations of the role of foreignness as opposed to a growing sense of American identity.
To briefly summarize individual sections, chapter one outlines the changes in national epistemology from an old-world belief in the supernatural into a type of new world rationalism. Chapter two shows how these attitudes became a vehicle in film to highlight the inferiority of foreign credulity and the subsequent triumph of American rationalism. To best exemplify this new rational skepticism, chapter three traces the rise of the idealized masculine hero as he compares to the credulous foreign Other and female figures. At this point, Phillips transitions into thinking about how moral crusades against proto-horror films characterized both the movies themselves and the audiences who saw them, with chapter four illustrating how literary material was used by filmmakers in conjunction with the rhetoric of uplift to lend legitimacy and protection from moral attacks. The fifth and final chapter of the book considers how aspects of melodrama and comedy were combined with horror elements to deflect concerns over the physical consequences of fear-inducing films as they newly contained sound. Phillips then briefly discusses Browning's Dracula and its self-characterization as a horror film in his conclusion.
While this may sound like a lot for one book to try to accomplish, and it certainly is, Phillips does so without overwhelming the reader with too much cinematic theory or rhetoric. In fact, one of the strong points of the book that it does not overly rely on theory or jargon. Phillips lays out most of his theoretical groundwork in the introduction, and reiterates or elaborates on it in relevant chapters, sticking to only two or three applied theories; but he clearly explains each [End Page 63] without oversimplifying them for his audience. This accessibility opens the book up for a wide variety of readers, ranging from specialists in the field to undergraduate students or those who are simply fans of the genre. His novel approach to method, combined with straightforward prose, allows Phillips's A Place of Darkness to offer a little something for everybody. [End Page 64]