Whether it’s a question of shaking and baking the bourgeoisie or grossing out the simpletons, eerie pics like George Franju’s 1959 “Eyes Without a Face” tend to erase easy distinctions between the aesthetic and the horrific. Or to put it simply: One man’s sleaze may be another’s high art.
At least that’s Joan Hawkins’ claim in “Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde.” Where classic horror pics are concerned, she argues, the bounds between high and low culture become shaky. Cultists and purists alike prize many of the same works, although their reasoning and rhetoric may be different. Sensational films often assume a life of their own after their initial public release, making them a rich subject for populist film historians to examine the crossover between the arty and the outre.
Perennial midnight masterpiece “Freaks” is a convincing case study. Tod Browning’s Depression-era study of circus geeks who seek vengeance against a representative of the “normal” world was initially banned in England and shelved by its Hollywood studio, MGM. Subsequently re-issued in 1962, it catalyzed countercultural intellectuals and thrill seekers alike. “Freaks” inspired high-art photographer Diane Arbus at the same time it played the fleabag moviehouses of the exploitation circuit. Combining elements of cinema verite with a nightmarish pulp urgency (and, Hawkins argues, a violently misogynist subtext), it stands as “a mainstream horror film that migrated into the exploitation arena before being finally recuperated as an avant-garde or art project.”
“Cutting Edge” incisively explores the way in which social anxieties are refracted by horror films. For instance: Was the murderous plastic surgeon in “Eyes Without a Face” really a metaphor for smoldering French guilt over collaboration with the Nazis? Did the thalidomide scare enhance the appeal of “Freaks” at the time of its re-release in the ’60s?
Hawkins is at her strongest when she explores how the historical reception of specific films shook up critics’ assumptions. Examining the dorky downtown art snobs who dismissed the gross-out humor of “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” in their efforts to discredit the popularity of its director, Paul Morrissey, Hawkins skewers the art-vs.-pulp mentality.
As midnight mavens world over know, good gore transcends categories. Nevertheless, Hawkins’ study is written in the sometimes jargon-infested prose of academia, and it figures to appeal more to students of film history than to underground genre fans.